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Phinney's introspective moment

Dave Phinney, a richer man

Dave Phinney, a richer man

In a recent video conference call, wine genius Dave Phinney answered a barrage of questions from wine journalists about his new line of wines, Locations, that blended vintages and grape varieties across appellations (see my column on another page). Late in the conversation, an inane question was thrown at him: "What was your proudest moment?" 

Phinney, a relatively shy winemaker but one who is honest and straightforward, paused. He reached back into his early winemaking career and said he refused to put "winemaker" on his business card until he was making his own wine. The unflappable Phinney became emotional and had to stop for a moment. 

"It was when I put 'winemaker' on my business cards," he finally answered, wiping away a tear.

Who couldn't appreciate his moment? He slaved away as a cellar rat for other California producers before hitting it big. He said he decided that if he was going to work that hard, he sure as hell was going to make better money. And so he did. First there was The Prisoner -- sold to Quintessa -- and then Orin Swift wines -- sold to E&J Gallo.

By the way, he joked about his only regret -- selling the The Prisoner brand to Agustin Huneeus. He reportedly sold the brand for $40 million. But in six years Huneeus sold it to Constellation for $285 million. It is unknown how much Phinney got from Gallo for Orin Swift, but I bet he didn't regret the deal this time.


Can beaujolais age?

You bet it can. 

Several years ago I asked myself that very question as I was breezing through a dozen beaujolais village crus. So, I put away several duplicates from the 2011 vintage just to see how they would age.  Last night I opened one of them: Chateau des Jacques La Roche from Moulin-a-Vent. It was absolutely delicious -- the fruit wasn't as vibrant or as fresh, but the texture and the depth was much better than I had expected from gamay grapes.

Beaujolais can age. But -- isn't there always a "but"? -- not all of them. This single vineyard cru from arguably the best village and from a very reputable producer had a better chance of survival. A simple beaujolais village or one from, say, Fleurie would not have done so well.


Rhone Valley's great whites

When thinking of white wines for spring, I usually turn to sauvignon blanc. Their crisp acidity awakens the slumbering palate from a winter of heavy reds. However, I recently tried a couple of white blends from the Rhone Valley that reminded me that spring is about more than just sauvignon blanc.

You can't even find sauvignon blanc among the handful of white grape varieties allowed in the Rhone. Instead, the indigenous grapes are viognier, marsanne, roussanne, grenache blanc and others no more well known.  They provide similar acidity but often with more character, especially when blended. But how many people think of white wine when they think of the Rhone Valley?

Two wines you should consider are the E.  Guigal Cotes du Rhone Blanc -- grenache blanc, clairette, bourboulenc and viognier -- and the E. Guigal Crozes-Hermitage Blanc -- marsanne and roussanne. Both are aged in stainless steel tanks to preserve their freshness.

These wines are for everyone. A few unsuspecting friends I tried them on were unimpressed, because of their bracing acidity.

Gallo purchases Stagecoach Vineyards

E&J Gallo continues its land-buying spree with the recent purchase of one of the most prestigious vineyards. The wine giant paid $180 million for the 1,300-acre property developed in 1995 by Dr. Jan Krupp.

The mountain vineyards that encompass about 600 acres of the property stretches from Pritchard Hill to Atlas Peak. Remarkably, the name graces the labels of about 25 wines and about another 65 producers use its cabernet sauvignon. They include such names as Chateau Montelena, Orin Swift (now owned by Gallo), Caymus, Pahlmeyer, Chappellet, Darioush and Pride Mountain.

In recent years, Gallo has bought Orin Swift, J Vineyard and Souverain along with a number of prime vineyards. Stagecoach Vineyards, however, is a coup. These mountain grapes are among the best and will elevate Gallo's status in the fine wine market.



Phinney strikes again

In the next several months -- if you haven't already -- you'll be reading a lot about David Phinney's relatively new wine project. Typical of the genius-without-walls wine producer who launched Orin Swift in 1998, his new project doesn't come without controversy.

Called "Locations," the series of 12 world wines blends grapes from different regions and vintages with the goal of creating wines that over-delivers in flavor and enjoyment. Phinney was inspired in part while waiting for a taxi by the bumper stickers denoting a country -- "F" for France in an oval white sticker. That image now graces these labels: "F" for wines from French vineyards, "E" for wines from Espana, or Spain, and "I" for wine made from Italian grapes -- three wines I tasted during a video conference call with Phinney and other wine journalists.

His portfolio includes three blends from the U.S. -- Oregon, California, Arizona, Washington and Texas (of all places).

Phinney spent years traveling around Europe looking for the right grapes, some of which were destined to be sold as bulk wine in regions where grape production outstrips demand. "E", for instance, blends grapes from Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

These wines are unquestionably tasty with ripe, extracted fruit. And, most consumers won't care that they break conventions. However, I'm struggling with accepting them beyond what they are: delicious wines that could come from anywhere.

I like tasting mint in my Rutherford cabernet and a special nuttiness in the chardonnay from Meursault. These wines mask the unique flavors that come from the terroir. You have a generic blend that defies the unique character that an appellation has taken years to define. Are these wines disrespectful of terroir?

"Yes, we are completely disrespecting terroir," Phinney admitted in a video conferencing call with wine journalists.

He said he never understood the significance of terroir until he spent time in Maury, a unique region in France's Roussillon area. After seeing the soil and tasting the wine, he saw the connection of terroir to a wine's character. But to him terroir was not an inviolable convention.

The broad blending practice certainly isn't new -- Champagne producers have been blending grapes from many appellations and vintages for centuries.

Yep, you get it

Last night I hosted a wine tasting for my community in Naples. Like at others I have hosted, I am impressed by wine enthusiasts who say they no little about wine -- but do.  

I like to expose people to unfamiliar grape varieties that take them out of their comfort zones. Most consumers are content to stick with their chardonnays and merlots instead of paying good money for a gewurztraminer or furmint -- wines they can hardly pronounce, let alone drink. I get it.  Even the sales staff doesn't know half of these wines.

I presented four white wines: an albarino from Spain, gruner veltliner from Austria, picpoul de pinet from southern France and a grillo/inzolia blend from Sicily. Two reds were more common: a Spanish garnacha and a Australian shiraz.

These wines were under $15 and are great alternatives to chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Most were very simple wines that quenched the thirst in warm Florida temperatures. They had in common good acidity and citrus flavors that are ideal for spring and summer sipping. Although most struggled to define the wine, they drew from their knowledge of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay to compare them. 

Not everyone liked all the wines, but they were eager to try something different and they focused their palates.  The Sicilian wine was the most controversial. I love grillo but there is so much inconsistency in quality that you have to be careful. This one from Kalia was an oxidized disaster. And, the tasters knew it.

There are more grape varieties available on the market than ever. Why not try them?  Except for the weird grillo/inzolia blend, the three white grape varieties offered simple, crisp flavors to greet spring. Go for it.

How to ruin a good sancerre? Add oak

I love the wines from Sancerre at this time of the year. There is something about the fresh acidity and floral notes of sauvignon blanc from this Loire Valley village that complement the arrival of spring.  If I see a dandelion, I don't see a weed. I see sauvignon blanc.

The sauvignon blancs from the Loire are quite different than those from New Zealand or the West Coast. They are more flinty, textured and often lean to citrus and stone-pit fruit flavors.  Best, they aren't as grassy as the bracing New Zealand sauvignon  blancs.

Alphonse Mellot and is son

Alphonse Mellot and is son

I went to a recent tasting of 10 sancerres and was taken by their differences. Much of the difference was due to soil and sun exposure, but most annoying were the handful of sancerres that were exposed to oak. Why on earth would anyone want to add oak flavors to a wine that traditionally is made entirely in stainless steel to preserve the freshness and purity of fruit character?

No good answers were forthcoming from the trade pourers, except that the winemaker liked them. He certainly knows more than me, but there wasn't one of these oak-fermented wines that seemed normal to me. 

If you are looking for great sancerre with character, look for the 2015 Domaine Alphonse Mellot "La Moussiere" ($30), 2015 Domaine Lucien Crochet Blanc ($30) and 2015 Domaine Chevreu "Les Terres Blanches" ($25) made from old-vine sauvignon blanc.

J. Lohr gets it

Jerry Lohr

Jerry Lohr

Given a choice, I prefer a wine that makes me think. It is brain over brawn -- a wine with a cerebral challenge vs. an obvious wine whose fruit just clobbers the palate without mercy.  A great burgundy, for instance, makes me reach for descriptors. Not so an extracted Australian syrah. You sip the first, gulp the latter.

My bias was put to a challenge at a recent dinner of friends. I brought along a 2014 J. Lohr Fog's Reach Pinot Noir, a wine I knew would please.  It did. In fact, the producer was well known to the group of occasional wine drinkers.

Lohr is known more for its chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons, which are also extracted and easy to drink. The pinot noirs from Monterey fruit are as big a challenge to Lohr as the grape is to any California producer. Alas, pinot noir is more susceptible to weather -- heat can overwhelm the thin-skinned grape and rain can bring on crippling disease. 

Lohr's production has grown to more than 1.6 million cases and I see it everywhere -- in restaurants and retail stores. Lohr's success is because he understands what consumers want: flavor. Who besides me wants to think about a wine?

Whether it is his chardonnays or his pinot noirs, Lohr's wines have excellent texture, copious and ripe fruit flavors, density and richness that contribute to a soft mouthfeel. Not much tannin or acidity in wines that are designed for immediate consumption.

Lohr was buying Monterey County vineyards in the late '70s and making wine from his first winery in 1978. In the '80s he expanded his vineyard holdings to Paso Robles, St. Helena and Santa Lucia Highlands to build up his production.

Lohr's vineyard-series chardonnays are expansive with broad and lush tropical fruit flavors. Like the pinot noirs, their success is the result of a lot of manipulation: stirring the lees, punching over the cap, malolatic fermentation and generous use of oak barrels.

If you haven't tried these wines, now is the time. The two pinot noirs are priced around $35 and the October Night Chardonnay around $25.  It's luxurious cuvee series are more pricey at $50 but these creative blends deliver a lot for the money.

Drip no more

Hallelujah, someone invented a dripless bottle. 

Daniel Perlman, a Brandeis University biophysicist and wine enthusiast, studied bottles for three years and noticed how they dripped, particularly when full. Since bottles are similarly shaped at the top, the producer doen't make a difference. They all dripped -- mostly onto white tablecloths which are like magnets to red wine as much as mobile homes are magnets to tornadoes. That's my contribution to the science anyway.

Perlman cut a 1mm-deep, 2mm-wide groove just below the top and wine wouldn't go into it. That's physics. Instead, it went into the glass where it belongs. 

The current bottle design is more than 200 years old. It blows my mind that it took a biophysicist and not a bottle manufacturer this long to figure out such a simple solution to such an annoying problem.


US champagne sales bubble to the top

Americans love of champagne is clearly evident in reports that show sales increasing in the United States and decreasing in Great Britain.

Although the Brits have traditionally led the way as a champagne export destination, sales in 2016 dropped 14 percent thanks to Brexit. In fact, many British champagne lovers fear that champagne could be banned in Great Britain when it finally pulls out of the European Union.

The United States, on the other hand, saw a 21 million bottle increase in champagne exports.

Laundered money?

Anyone who has tried to snag a reservation at the vaunted French Laundry in Napa Valley knows all about frustration. Probably the most famous and heralded restaurant in California and perhaps the United States, the few tables in the French Laundry are impossible to get even if one works months ahead.

Maybe it will get a bit less frustrating -- but certainly not cheaper -- with a newly introduced reservation system from Tock.

Under the system three months of reservations will be made available online at once. People will grab up the reservations, no doubt, but may be surprised that they have to pay down a significant portion of the dinner to secure a seat. Dinners start at more than $300 and that doesn't include wine. 

The down payment is meant to eliminate no-shows, which undoubtedly cost restaurants a lot of money. However, restaurant owner and chef Thomas Keller is a major investor in Tock.


About those headaches....

Those of you who regularly suffer headaches from drinking a particular wine should read this month's Food and Wine magazine. An article explaining the likely causes of wine-aches is the most comprehensive and understandable one I've read on the subject.

In short, it's not the sulphites that for years have been inaccurately charged as the cause. Instead, scientific evidence points to naturally occurring compounds found in most wines -- phenolic flavonoids and biogenic amines. Flavonoids bring out the wine's color and flavor; they are found in the skins, stems and seeds of red wines. Biogenic amines appear during the fermentation process and are associated with histamine and tyramine compounds found most often in red wine.  For that reason, most headache suffers say their problems occur after drinking red wines.

This working theory was confirmed in a relatively small study conducted by Argentine doctors who gave 28 people two wines to drink during a trial period: a cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux and a cabernet sauvignon from South America. Sixty percent of the Bordeaux drinkers reported headaches; only 40 percent of the South American wine drinkers reported the same.

The explanation? Bordeaux producers extract the most tannin and phenolic flavonoids from their wines to give them longevity, color and depth of fruit. South American producers aren't looking for their wines to be aged and instead make them drinkable on release. The price comparison between the two wines confirms the difference in effort.

Although I know of some people who swear that only white wine gives them headaches, most of the people I know associate headaches with red wines. My wife, for instance, gets regular headaches after drinking even small amounts of Cline Cellars zinfandel -- every time. Alas, the wine is one of a handful that has given me a headache. These wines are fruit-forward, dense and dark in color. Is the producer extracting the most tannin and phenolic flavenoids it can?

So if you insist red wine, particularly those with forward flavors and tannin, gives you headaches, it's not all in your head.






Preserving opened wines a crapshoot

Over the past several weeks I have entertained a number of house guests -- an insurgence that is more about Florida's warm winter weather than it is about me. The relentless assault on my wine cellar has taken its toll, but despite the depletion it is nice to be able to share good wine with friends who appreciate it.

Because I opened several bottles at a time to allow for comparison and the vagaries of picky palates, there remained a glass or two in several bottles. With guests safely in bed, I recorked the wines for future consumption. Alas, I didn't use a vacuum pump to preserve the wine but I did put it back in the cool cellar. (It's rare for me to have leftovers because I usually open one bottle for my wife and me).

I discovered the next day the obvious: young wines didn't show any depreciation the next day, but the older wines did. A 2003 Charvin Chateauneuf du Pape and a 2007 Hall cabernet sauvignon were essentially ruined from oxidation. 

None of this should be a surprise to me, but it reinforce a lesson I learned long ago. In short, older wines must undergo some preservation system to retain their quality overnight. If you want to enjoy a special wine the next day, put it to bed in a sober moment.

Unraveling and understanding Orin Swift

David Phinney, a wine genius by most accounts, founded Orin Swift Cellars in 1998 after being inspired by a stay in Italy and later by a temporary stint at Robert Mondavi. He made a batch of wines from zinfandel grapes and thus launched a wine enterprise that became a financial success. His blends, pricey and with edgy labels, developed a cult following.

Orin is his father's middle name and Swift is his mother's maiden name.

These wines aren't for everyone and they certainly aren't for me. Heavily extracted and jammy, they are better spread on toast in the morning. They are the opposite of elegant French wine and more like the dense, hedonistic Australian shiraz and grenache, like those from Clarendon Hills and Mollydooker.

Phinney's The Prisoner brand was bought by Constellation in 2016 for a cool $285 million -- no property, just the name. E.&J. Gallo bought the rest of the brand, inventory and Modesto tasting room later in the year. 

I have to wonder whether Constellation or Gallo will be able to sustain Phinney's wine philosophy. Neither one seems to be a good fit for cult wines not intended for the masses.

I was thinking of this incredible success story while sipping a D66 that was gifted to me recently. Made mostly from grenache grown in the Roussillon region of southwest France, it mirrors Swift's other wines. Jam-packed, rich and concentrated with ripe cassis and plum notes and floral aromas, it attacks the palate with bold, full-bodied flavors. This is hardly a sipping wine on some summer day, but rather a wine you would pair with barbecued foods, beef, lamb or wild game.

In spite of my personal dislike of these wines, I can't deny their popularity. They get high reviews from other critics too. Prices range from $30-120 for blends with names like Trigger Finger, Machete, China Doll, Mercury Head, Slander and more.


A vineyard just for you

Have you ever wished for a vineyard but didn't have the means or ability to grow grapes? Or make wine?

Case de Uco may be able to help. The luxury Argentine resort is offering 80 plots on which they will help you grow grapes. Starting at a mere $45,000 for a half-acre, a lot comes with expertise from the winery and membership to the resort. Uco Valley is one of the most fertile wine-growing regions in Argentina.

I suspect only a few wealthy individuals will take them up on this offer, but it surely would give investors some bragging rights.

Is it the wine -- or is it the alcohol?

I bought a case of wine the other day. That may not sound unusual for someone who writes about wine, but it was. Over the years I have amassed a small cellar that is maturing at a nice pace -- especially now that I'm not working and have less money to invest in wines that will probably mature after my death. But I generally save the older wines for a special dinner at home.

I get samples several times a week and happy hour is often spent analyzing a half dozen wines. That may sound like an envious task, but that joy of tasting free wine has worn off long ago. Many of the wines are quite pedestrian, so the remains often end up in the drain or in the hands of eager neighbors who are all too willing to consume the leftovers.  

People feel I'm lucky to have so much free samples at my disposal, but trust me, it's not as glorious as it sounds. These wines are analyzed, as they should be, and not stored in my cellar for later use. If I have a party, I open a few samples to get the opinions of others. If you drink all these wines -- the good and the bad -- the process becomes more about the alcohol than the wine. I don't ever want to get to a point where I am not discriminating when I drink wine. 

With this in mind, I ventured into a wine store and lazily cruised the aisles looking for inspiration. I quickly passed up Bordeaux and Burgundy, and meandered down the aisles of southern France, Alsace, and Spain. I wanted something I can enjoy tonight with my pasta or stew.

I realized how badly I missed discovering good value wines that I can open without guilt. A third of the wines I bought were from Spain -- a region that offers a lot of good bargains in the under $25 category. This region is so fertile in good wines.

I also bought several roses -- perfect for the warmer climate of Florida. And, I bought a few wines from the Rhone Valley. I didn't buy any domestic wines because I drink so many California and Oregon wines during the week.

Now, I have to find the time to drink them. And, it won't be just a job when I do.

Paying hommage to Cotes du Rhone

I was in a restaurant the other night and struck by the cost of wine. It's getting pretty hard to find something decent under $50 and most of the interesting wines are $70 and above. Even when I realize the markup can be as high as 400 percent, I still want wine with my dinner. It isn't unusual to get a staggering bill of more than $200 a couple. That's just nuts.

I know, it doesn't make sense when the wine bill is often more than the food bill, but for my wife and I wine is as much a part of the experience as the food.

But, in the hands of a good wine manager or somm, reasonable wines can be found at the right price. Take,for instance, the Cotes du Rhone. I recently enjoyed a Chateau St. Cosme for $46. It was one of the cheapest wines on the menu, but I bet it also was one of the best. I could have ordered current vintages of Bordeaux that wouldn't have showed any where near as well as the St. Cosme. And with country French food on the plate, it was a perfect match.

The Rhone Valley offers great values whether the wines hail from the Cotes du Rhone, Vacqueyras, Saint Joseph, etc. 

The other night I uncorked several 10-year-old chateauneuf du papes and regaled in their quality.  I don't think I spent more than $40 for any of them. Even though Bordeaux dominates my cellar, the Rhone Valley is my favorite for both current drinking and long-term cellaring. 

It really annoys me when a restaurant list of expensive wines fails to provide the right alternatives to appeal to frugal customers. It's not hard if you have a good manager or wine steward.

Happy days are here again

Happy National Wine Day. As if marketers haven't given us another reason to buy something, today we have another reason to drink wine. I'm all for it. 

There are a lot of people drinking wine in the world and not just today. The U.S. consumes more than any of them at a round 3.2 billion liters in 2014, although they lag in per capita consumption behind most European countries. We're a paltry 55th in the ranking. Let's step it up.

Who's at the top of the heap? Andorra. Yep, we're sure you know where that it.

Only 69,165 people occupy this skiing region on the border of Spain and France, but they average 76 bottles of wine a year. I want to visit them. I don't ski.

The capital of Andorra. All wine flows downhill.

The capital of Andorra. All wine flows downhill.

The Vatican City ranks second in per-capita wine consumption and I only hope the wine is consumed mostly during communion. I even pray it is because the alternative is unthinkable.

So today when I celebrate National Wine Day, I'll toast the people of Andorra who obviously need no celebration to drink.


Lowering the boom on wine sales

The Silicon Valley Bank is predicting that wines sales will begin taking a hard hit as the Baby Boom generation fades. About 44 percent of sales are made to those between 48 and 65 years old.

With 11,500 of them retiring every day, it's not hard to do the math. I am among those boomers who stopped massive wine purchases when I retired on a fixed income. I'm feeding off my cellar now and quite contently.

Winemakers have been bragging about increased wine sales, but I bet those numbers are about to peak. Generation X, Y and Millennials simply aren't buying wine at the same pace as their elders.

The wine producers who may be hurt the most are those whose wines are pricey. I just can't imagine new generations forking over $50-300 for a bottle of wine. It's just not in their nature.

The Chinese market a chinese puzzle

If you wonder how difficult the Chinese market is to crack for wine producers, talk to Gaia Gaja. Her family's wines are some of the most prestigious in all of Italy, commanding prices of more than $400 a bottle for its barbarescos and barolos.

I had lunch with Gaia -- pronounced "gaya" just like the last name -- this week and it was full circle from a lunch I had with her father, Angelo, more than 35 years ago. Angelo. 77, has willingly turned over most operations to his daughters. One of Gaia's jobs is to work with trade and distributors in foreign markets. That took her to China several years ago where you would think the Gaja name was well known. 

She found the market dominated by Bordeaux and recounts a conversation she had with a woman who was doing her nails. The woman wanted to know what Gaia did for a living and became instantly confused. She knew nothing about Europe an d didn't even know where Italy was located. When Gaia introduced the subject of wine, though, she had instant recognition.

"Eight-two Lafite-Rothschild?" the manicurist said in broken English. Gaia knew then what competition she was facing.

"She knew nothing about Italy and nothing about wine, but she associated wine with Lafite," Gaia said.

It turned out that 1982 Lafite-Rothschild was often on television shows as a symbol of luxury. The Chinese don't drink much wine, but they are fond of buying expensive gifts as a sign of wealth. 

Slowly, the market is changing. A new president outlawed gifts to public officials and several producers lost a lot of money when that happened. It's a more honest market, Gaia said, so Italy is on equal-footing with France.

I can't imagine her frustration when she found the Chinese were equating "wine" with "1982 Lafite-Rothschild."