Tom's blog

Look first at the importer's name

I was perusing the selection of wines at a local merchant in my hometown of Naples, FL, and noticed that many -- if not all -- of the wines were imported by Kermit Lynch. Bleu Provence is actually a restaurant that has a license to sell its wines in an adjoining retail store. And, according to an employee, is Kermit Lynch's top customer.

Knowing Kermit Lynch's vast portfolio, I was like a kid in a candy store.

Kermit-Lynch is one of the best importers of French wine, so it wasn't a surprise that I spent a long time in this store examining the labels of wines I hadn't tried before. I walked out with several bottles, including an intriguing blend of malbec (a largely abandoned grape in France), syrah and cabernet franc. From the Languedo-Roussillon region of southern France, the La Grange de Quatre Cuvee Garsinde was simply delicous. At $20, it shows that you can get bargains in France that often outperform what you can find in California for the same price. This vineyard also makes a white blend that came to our attention during a recent dinner there. 

Then there was the Domaine la Casenove La Garrigue Sous from another terrific importer: European Cellars. A blend of carignane, grenache and syrah, it too had those quaffable flavors you expect from these grape varieties grown in southern France.

Two great Languedoc wines from two great importers.  Pay attention to the importers on the label and you won't go wrong.


Can wine be made in a lab?

I can't imagine anything more disgusting than drinking a laboratory-concocted wine from a test tube. That's what a San Francisco start-up has in mind -- wine made in a lab without any grapes.

I can't even get past the name -- Ava Winery -- not to mention what it is attempting to do with a natural product. The project allegedly began when Mardonn Chua and Alec Lee were visiting a California winery and saw a bottle of the Chateau Montelena that beat its French counterparts at the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting. Unable to ever taste such an iconic wine, the mad chemists wondered if they could create a synthetic wine that would match the cabernet sauvignon's flavors. And, off they went to their laboratories.

The basic process of turning sugar into alcohol by introducing yeast can be duplicated by simply adding alcohol. It cuts to the chase. But trying to mimic the 1,000 esters that give wine its flavor is another matter. Chua told various news outlets that he can add, say, ethyl hexanoate for the pineapple-like aroma and have wine in 15 minutes and a far cheaper price.

I can't wait.

Their first product wasn't Chateau Montelena, by the way. It was suppose to be chardonnay, but it tasted so bad they switched to Moscato d'Asti. Never mind that the world is hardly waiting in line for a sweet sparkling wine from Italy, but a synthetic one? Well, I guess I relax that they have chosen a crappy wine to imitate.

They say the next step is to produce an imitation of Dom Perignon for $50. Yeah, right.

Wine critics who dared to put the moscato into their bodies were not impressed, from what I read. One talked about the odor that reminded them of an inflatable pool shark. Others said the concoction tasted like -- now here comes the surprise -- chemicals.

I can't imagine the field day federal regulators will have with putting "wine" on this label, not to mention analyzing the chemicals fit for human consumption.

I guess inventing a product that will turn the world upside down and make a lot of money is an all-American goal, but this one makes no sense. When consumers are demanding fewer chemicals in everything from bread to wine, who would want to buy a fake, all-chemical wine -- even if it was good?


Duckhorn makes a pinot noir move

Duckhorn has announced the acquisition of Calera, an iconic pinot noir label founded by Josh Jensen in 1975. The addition to Duckhorn's vast portfolio -- Duckhorn, Goldeneye, Parduxx, Migration, Decoy and Canvasback -- Calera provides another strong pinot noir with iconic status. 

I have tasted Calera's exquisite pinot noir and chardonnay for decades and it never failed to impress me. Often deceivingly light in color, it has embraced a Burgundian philosophy. 

"Like our own founders, Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, Josh is a visionary and pioneer who has spent more than four decades shaping the modern American palate for luxury wines. What he has achieved at Calera has been nothing short of remarkable,” said Alex Ryan, president and CEO of DWC in a press release.

“Calera is one of the world’s great wineries, and we will ensure that Josh’s legacy of quality and excellence will continue to flourish for decades to come. For us, this is a fantastic opportunity to establish a presence on the Central Coast with one of the region’s most iconic wineries.”

The sale includes the winery and 85 acres of vineyards in the Mt. Harlan AVA.

Duckhorn does not plan any immediate changes in personnel. Jensen will remain involved and has earned a seat on DWC's board of directors. At 73, he was undoubtedly looking to slow down. He deserves it.




Alsace: neglected, forgotten, ignored

There is probably no other wine region that suffers as much consumer neglect than Alsace. Located on the banks of the Rhine River in northeastern France, it was occupied by the Germans on four different occasions. It is no wonder that not only does its architecture of stucco and timber reflect Germanic influences, but the names of its wine producers -- Zind Humbrecht, Trimbach, Ostertag -- are more German than France.

Literally, not even the French from Burgundy, Bordeaux and Provence understand Alsatians. Their Alemannian dialect is still spoken in Germany, but no where else in France. When the Roman empire fell, the region became part of Germany and wasn't conquered by the French until 1639. The tug-of-war over this region has left Alsace with the same acceptance as a litter's runt. Yet to a visitor Alsace is one of France's most beautiful yet humble regions.

One would think that its residents would suffer an inferiority complex with such history. But that's hardly the case. They are very proud of their wines, even if few others want to drink them.

I thought about Alsace's unfortunate predicament while recently tasting through 10 of its wines. It is so rare to have the opportunity. Even the evening's host -- Jacques Cariot, owner of Bleu Provence in Naples, FL -- was shocked to see a full house. (It was August and the bored were willing to sacrifice "Wheel of Fortune" for one night).

But the experience proved to be worth the sacrifice if just for the reminder that there is more to wine than chardonnay.

Alsace is split into three AOC designations: Alsace, grand cru and cremant de Alsace. About 78 percent is classified "Alsace." Ninety percent of the wine is white -- the red is represented by pinot noir for reasons I will forever struggle to understand. And, only 25 percent of the wine is exported.

Still, Alsace produces some of the best dry rieslings in the world. It's gewurztraminer, despite being a tongue-twister, is so aromatic you could sell it as perfume. And, its muscat, although not for everyone, will shock palates conditioned by oaky chardonnays.

I lament that most stores don't carry many Alsace wines because there is so little demand for them. But you should seek them out. Look for producers Zind-Humbrecht, Trimbach, Hugel, Osterag, Boxler and Weinbach. 

A good starter wine is pinot blanc, a great aperitif with deceiving simplicity and fresh acidity to ward off summer heat. Rieslings are often delicate, but characterized by finesse and finish. They complement delicate fish with simple preparations. Gewurztraminer is hardly delicate and should be paired with heavy sauces; it's even a common foil to spicy foods and sushi.

My tasting notes from some of the evening's wines can be found on my following "recommendations" page.


Don't let wine outlast you

In the past decade or so I've been asked to evaluate a number of cellars that were passed down to heirs after their collectors died. In most cases, the collections were no more than 50 bottles or so. Each time I took time to reflect on the thoughts of the collectors who, for whatever reason, had squirreled away a few bottles they were convinced would benefit from age. Alas, in most cases, they were wrong. Perhaps they were simply over-confident, misguided or perhaps the wine just reminded them of fond times in wine country. 

Yes, I have found Chateau Yquem, vintage port and even first-growth  Bordeaux. But in most cases I found Virginia cabernet or some second-rate California cabernet that caught the collector's fancy in a visit to the property. In some cases, I could imagine that a slick salesman told them the $20 Bordeaux was as good as a top growth.

Most likely they were assured the $75 bottle of highly allocated wine would last decades. It's sad really because the expectations of the heirs is high; so is the disappointment once the truth is out.  Once, sadly, I even found an incredible 50-year-old port that had been opened for several weeks. They thought, wrongly, that port would do well long after it was exposed to air.

I muse all of this as I popped a few corks tonight over a steak dinner. I remember the salesman who assured me i was making an excellent buy when I bought a box of 2003 Chateau du Marquis from St. Julien. Sadly, it never improved after I first tasted it in 2005. Then, there was the expensive 2007 Dry Creek Vineyard Meritage, a nice Bordeaux blend that was still tight and alive. I never thought it would last this long, but, voila, it did. So, who really knows?

The point of all of this rant? Don't get caught up in the moment. Visits to wineries are sucker punches when it comes to buying wine. You're having a good time and, as you do, the wine tastes remarkably better than it is. You feel confident and you lose your common sense as the alcohol courses through your body. Pretty soon you have a case of wine in your cellar that outlives you, and your heirs wonder what you were thinking. 

Best of luck, sucker. 

Bridging wine and industry?

I love how Washington state wine producers embrace wine tasting. No exquisite tasting rooms with gobs of t-shirts, trivets and key chains. Instead, many of them have made an industrial complex in Woodinville their home. Here, their staffs -- most part-time wine enthusiasts or family members -- trot out sandwich boards every morning to help guide visitors to their location. Those who want a better neighborhood squeeze themselves between shops in strip centers. Walk into any of them and you get a feeling of casual, no-nonsense education.

Take for instance, Efeste. When we sat down to start a tasting, who shows up but owner Daniel Ferrelli. No introductions, no pretenses, let's just you and me taste the wine. Daniel grew up in a family of Italian winemakers who typical of Italians made the stuff for personal consumption. But he's no winemaker. With only a handful of harvests behind him, he has scored an average of 90 for all of his wines. A recent syrah was rated in the Top 50 of the year by Wine Spectator. Yet, here he is sharing his story with walk-ins and in an inglorious tasting room.

This is what we like about Washington winemakers. Not everyone has the grand tasting room of Chateau Ste. Michelle.

If you can find it, the 2013 Efeste Jolie Bouche syrah is ridiculously delicious with rich, hedonistic red fruit flavors, a dash of chocolate and pepper. It gets fruit from the Red Mountain in Yakima Valley.

Washington's best is pretty damn good

There was a time -- decades ago -- when Washington state's wines were poorly represented. Those that were broadly distributed weren't that good either. Fast forward today: they are as good as anything made in Napa Valley.

Like any region, Washington's Columbia Valley slowly prospered as pioneering winemakers began to understand the soil and climate. Today the wine giant Chateau Ste. Michelle dominates the market -- and makes outstanding, well-priced wines -- but hundreds of small, craft wineries have found a niche.

I was in Woodinville yesterday and astounded by the number of tasting rooms that beckon to tourists and locals who can hop from one to the other by foot. Woodinville is a quaint slice of Washington life with tony restaurants and shops. It should be a must-stop for you.

Yesterday's highlight was Long Shadows, a group of wines made under one general winemaker but with the guidance of well-known winemakers, including Randy Dunn (Dunn Wines), Michel Rolland (renown French wine consultant), John Duval (Penfold's Grange), Philippe Melka (Napa's Quintessa) and Gilles Nicault (France and Washington's Woodward Canyon). Each of these prominent winemakers crafts one of a handful extraordinary wines in the Long Shadows red wine portfolio.

Overseeing all of this is Allen Shoup, who was the CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle during its growth years. 

The ones I was able to taste were full-bodied, ready for the cellar, and complex. They include the 2014 Feather Cabernet Sauvignon (Dunn), 2014 Pedestal Merlot (Rolland), 2014 Pirouette blend of bordeaux grapes (Milka), 2014 Chester-Kidder cab/syrah blend (Nicault) and 2014 Sequel syrah (Duval).

This is a very interesting concept.

Refrigerated shipping changed the wine industry

There was a recent report that a cache of madeira was recently discovered during a archeological dig around an old New Jersey museum's wine cellar. The three cases unearthed at the Liberty Hall Museum in Union, N.J., was still in drinkable condition.

The discovery got me to thinking about the evolution of wine imports to the United States and how far we've come since President Jefferson struggled to get Burgundy to Monticello.

Madeira, produced on the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira, was one of a handful of wines that traveled well in an age of unrefrigerated containers. But it wasn't the only one. Port, for instance, traveled well because it was intentionally refortified with brandy to make it last longer. The colonies were happy to have these wines.

Even champagne made the trip, but only after the British invented a stronger bottle to keep it from exploding.

The explosion of wine choices in the United States didn't happen until transportation improved from wine growing regions in Europe. Even in my lifetime, there were but a handful of wines on the shelves during the 1950s and 1960s. 

Wine doesn't do well in heat, so temperature control was key to opening the door to thousands of producers eager to sell wines to North Americans. So, instead of sweet madeira and port, consumers finally had regular, still wine to buy. Thank heavens.


Migration shows the importance of terroir

Duckhorn produces a series of extraordinary chardonnays under its Migration label. These wines – all unique to their Napa Valley appellations – demonstrate the significance of terroir in crafting single-vineyard chardonnays.  

Frankly, this is a refreshing demonstration in light of a general trend toward generic wine that crosses regions.  Chardonnay, in particular, seems to fall victim to winemakers who blend grapes from various regions and thus strip the wine of traits unique to a vineyard. For instance, Kendall-Jackson makes good, balanced wine but often blends grapes from several appellations. 

Said Migration winemaker Dana Epperson in a press release, "Every vineyard we work with was selected because it yields distinctive and exciting wines. While there is a stylistic continuity  that runs through them all, each vineyard-designate has a purpose in our portfolio, and a personality of its own." 

We tasted five Migration chardonnays side-by-side and were struck by their differences. For instance, the Running Creek chardonnay from the Russian River Valley was tightly wound, laser focused and fresh while the Dierberg Vineyard chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley was broad on the palate, lush and ripe. 

Migration also has chardonnays from a Bien Nacio Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley and the Charles Heitz Vineyard in Sonoma  Coast. 

Those of you who have given up on chardonnay need to taste these wines and appreciate what good can be done in the right hands. 

Yes, you like those wine descriptions

I was recently intrigued by a report from the University of Adelaide that shows consumers are motivated to buy a wine based on their emotions after reading a critic's description.  The consumer study showed that a buyer's decision on what to buy and how much to pay is greatly influenced by how they feel after reading a label or a critic's review.  

I guess it's no different than any other kind of marketing. You likely would buy a wine that is said to be "like walking through a field of lilacs" over a wine that compared the experience to walking through a field of cow shit, right?

I often struggle to come up with apt descriptions and resort to standbys that name the fruit flavor or an herb that is integral to the aromas. But I've read some marketing crap that goes on and on about "liquid Viagra" or "wine that makes you want to cozy up to a fire." Worse, there are common descriptions that a consumer in his right mind would want to avoid: cat pee (sauvignon blanc), diesel fuel (riesling), barnyard (burgundy).

it's impressive that even some tasters can distinguish between white and black pepper or fresh sage versus dried sage, anise versus licorice, milk chocolate versus dark chocolate. Does it really matter? Apparently, it does. The 126 tasters surveyed after a blind tasting showed a willingness to buy a wine that had effusive praise on its back label. 

I've often condemned labels for lacking basic information, such as grape varieties used in a blend. Instead, you get a vapid and contrived marketing description that is more ad than information. But, stupid me. It's the ad that sells the wine.


Zinfandel's ups and downs

I was talking to Gary Sitton the other day. He's the lucky guy in transition to fill the shoes of Joel Peterson, founder and retiring winemaker of Ravenswood. The subject was on zinfandel's rise and fall from power, a point Sitton agreed is part of zinfandel's history.

There was once a time not that long ago when the all-American grape variety had a cult following for producers like Ridge, Raffenelli, Edmeades, and Ravenswood. But the confusion created by white zinfandel and the increase in competition from other grapes took the luster off red zinfandel. People began to shift to pinot noir and meritage blends.  In fact, zinfandel became the foundation for many cheap blends. The grape can be high-yielding in places like Lodi, so a producer can make a pretty cheap, generic red wine by using zinfandel as his base.

Director of Winemaking Gary Sitton with outgoing winemaker and founder Joel Peterson.

Director of Winemaking Gary Sitton with outgoing winemaker and founder Joel Peterson.

Sitton doesn't think that these blends will undermine the efforts of craft zinfandel users, but clearly the zin industry needs to retrieve its giddy-up. The answer may lay in the single-vineyard zins that show more character.

I'm among those who have had a falling out with zinfandel. I once enjoyed its heady, boisterous character but over time found too many of them overripe and raisiny.  However, I recently tried some of Ravenswood's single-vineyard zins and those from Quivira, Ridge and Raffenelli.  Good stuff.

Ravenswood's iconic Vintner's Blend was once a great wine, but now in the hands of new owner, Constellation Brands, it has become cheap plonk. Sitton says production was once 500,000 cases! No cult following there.

"We are at the crossroads as Ravenswood started out as a high-end, cult status brand," Sitton says. "We've grown the appellation tier of our zinfandel and out of necessity we started growing the Vintner's Blend. When you start that, you are wildly successful. But at the same time you try to remain relevant." 

With the grilling season upon us, zinfandel has relevance. Besides being the patriotic grape for Memorial Day and July 4th, its jammy, fruit-forward character is a great match to hamburgers, ribs, pulled pork and other grilled or smoked meats.


So what really is a good wine?

I am constantly asked for a good wine suggestion. It never fails to puzzle me: good wine, according to whom? A good wine to me -- a Languedoc syrah, an aged Alsace pinot gris from old vines, an expensive barbaresco -- may not be good to you. And what in the hell is "good" anyway?

Bianca Bosker in her delightfully scandalous book, "Cork Dork," has come up with what I think is the best answer, albeit qualified. She writes, "There is, however, a subtle but important distinction between a wine that's good to me and a wine that's good."

OK, the proverbial light bulb finally went off. You and I can analyze a wine for its balance, complexity and finish and agree that it is a good wine technically -- but disagree on whether we like it. I've tasted a number of wines that meet these three important criterion and still not liked them. A number of German rieslings and California zinfandels come to mind. They aren't "good" to me.

Bosker argues that to truly determine if a wine is of good quality, you need an out-of-body experience. Ignore your biases and your sensory reaction to a wine and judge its quality on its technical analysis. Not everyone can do that, of course, so we are left with people who will continue ask us for a good wine and then become discouraged when our suggestion  is unappealing.

For me, the distinction between what is a good wine and what is good to me leads my answers in new directions. In the future I'll answer what I like with enough caveats to make a head spin.

You'll be seeing more thought-provoking blogs that relate to what I am reading in "Cork Dork." I can't remember a book that has gotten me to re-think what goes into tasting a wine. 

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.


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.

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.






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.


Appreciating good wine not for everyone

I had the most enjoyable two-hour lunch with Gaia Gaja, the fifth generation Gaja to become involved in the family's iconic Piedmont wine business. The subjects ranged from her family history to the impact of an impudent president (yeah, Italy had one too). So, I'll be posting a couple of these exchanges in the next few days.

Gaia Gaja

Gaia Gaja

One illuminating discussion centered around the appreciation of a Gaja barbaresco, not everyone's cup of tea.  I like to call these wines "cerebral" because they call on a taster to dig deep into the recesses of his mind to fully appreciate them. There are nuances that evolve in the glass and even more that evolve in the cellar. They aren't as obvious as, say, a full-throttle Oregon pinot noir or an extracted Bordeaux. Instead of clobbering your palate with ripe fruit, a Gaja barbaresco teases the palate. 

Gaia compares drinking her barbaresco to meeting a stranger. "When I drink nebbiolo, I see myself in a room next to an interesting stranger and he's running away. I'm constantly chasing this wine and about the time I catch up, it goes again," she says.

Although the business is a family affair, Gaia's primary role is traveling the globe and working with wholesalers, customers of her family's wine, and trade groups. In her travels, she says many avid Gaja fans want her to taste what they believe are similar wines. But they are not and that disappoints her. Maybe nothing compares to Gaja barbaresco.

The 2011 Gaja Barbaresco I tasted with her was a fresh edition of what I remember from older vintages. The generous aromas included strawberries and red currants -- somewhat ripe but still fresh to me. Alcohol and acidity were in exquisite harmony.

There are few other wines in my experience that reach this level. Many great burgundies do and maybe a few Alsace rieslings.  But Gaja's wines are the Maseratis of the fleet.

I can't imagine pouring these wines to the masses, which is what Gaja was doing when she attended a charity fundraiser in Naples, FL, that evening. Granted, at $10,000 a couple it attracted well-heeled contributors, but who knew what they were tasting?


Redirecting pinot palates

Cushing Donelan

Cushing Donelan

The other night I enjoyed a steak dinner with Cushing Donelan, one of the family members who puts his name behind some of the most exclusive wines in Sonoma County. We were enjoying his 2012 Two Brothers Pinot Noir, an understated wine closer to the likes of Burgundy than California. With minimal exposure to oak and reasonable whole-cluster fermentation, it is a cerebral wine -- one that gets you to think. Contrarily, my palate collapses under the weight of these heavy, extracted pinot noirs from other parts of California.

I asked "Cush" if it's challenging to reach consumers who have been weaned on sweet, inexpensive pinot noir, such as Meomi and Menage a Trois.

"Absolutely," he confessed.

Meomi, now owned by Constellation Brands, makes more than 500,000 cases. Donelan's entire production of 14 wines is a scant 6,500 cases. Meomi cost around $15; Donelan Two Brothers is around $60. 

As consumers flock to the many over-extracted, high-alcohol fruit bombs, is there any hope they will appreciate Donelan's wine? Not likely, but that trend won't dissuade the Donelans who have been true to their cause of making refined pinot noir and syrah.

Fortunately, Donelan has much less pinot noir to sell -- in fact, the only way to get it is through its web site. They'll do just fine, but I have to ponder the thought of pinot noir being defined by the wrong standard.

There are many producers following Donelan's model and I'm thankful every time I ponder a balanced pinot noir. 

More on Donelan's great wines in future posts.

Is it safe to split a bottle of wine -- and drive?

My wife and I like to order a bottle of wine when we dine out. Spread over a couple of hours of leisurely dining, I assume the wine has not rendered me incapable of getting us home. But if I were pulled over, would the police think differently?

Chances are you have wondered the same thing.

I laid the matter to rest recently by using a portable breathalyzer to measure my alcohol content in a simulated dining experience. The AlcoMate Revo made by AK Global Tech is a highly sophisticated breathalyzer that assures accuracy over multiple uses and even has a spare sensor module to quickly substitute as the other one is being recalibrated. Like other breathalyzers, you simply blow into a disposable port until told to stop.

Here was the set-up: I drank  14 ounces of wine -- slightly more than half of a 750ml bottle -- over 90 minutes and with a hearty meal. 

Here was AlcoMate's result: .044 percent alcohol content, well under the .08 level all states use to charge you with drunk driving, measured 30 minutes after I stopped drinking and eating..

Here are the "buts": Some states have lesser charges that can be brought with lower levels. For instance, in Maryland a breathalyzer reading of .07 to .08 could draw a driving while impaired charge with a heavy penalty. Furthermore, a reading of .05 to .07 can be used against you if you are charged with another infraction, such as reckless driving. My home state of Florida has no such additional charges.

But, my .044 reading was safely under even the most strict drunk driving levels.

Secondly, everyone reacts differently to alcohol consumption. I am 6-ft. 4-in. tall and weigh 200 pounds. A woman and a person with more fat will not metabolize alcohol as quickly as a thin male. And, a "drink" is not always equal. A 4-oz. glass of wine is not the same as a margarita with a double shot of tequila, so watch those guidelines that say it's safe to have one drink per hour.

The AlcoMate costs $225 and can be purchased on line. It's far less than your legal fees if you are charged with drunk driving. 


Is sauvignon blanc and luxury an oxymoron?

Tom Gamble, farmer

Tom Gamble, farmer

Last year I met Tom Gamble of Napa Valley's Gamble Family Vineyards. Tom prided himself as being a farmer first and a winemaker second. A very humble man, his wines were anything but. While well-heeled patrons lined up for his expensive cabernet sauvignons at a pricey fundraiser in Naples, FL, I latched onto his Heart Break sauvignon blanc. At nearly $100 a bottle, it was hardly a cheaper alternative to his equally expensive red blends.  But while I have tasted similar red wines at similar prices, I never tasted a sauvignon blanc like this. Unfortunately, patrons had prematurely made up their minds that sauvignon blanc couldn't live up to their standards.

I spoke to Gamble later on the phone and wrote a column about this extraordinary venture. Who would pay this kind of money for a sauvignon blanc? Well, enough people did that he sells out of his small production.

The wine is exquisite with a Bordeaux-like style that comes from two clones -- one from Graves and the other from the Loire Valley. It has exotic, layered fruit that ranges from citrus to passion fruit and a finish that never seems to end. Although it has great mouthfeel, it wasn't heavy on the palate. Like a white Bordeaux, you had to pause and think about what you were tasting. Frankly, I haven't been able to get this wine out of my mind since.

I was reminded of this wine when I recently sampled the 2015 Flora Springs Soliloquy Sauvignon Blanc. At half the price, the Soliloquy delivered a similar exotic Bordeaux style. It's clone is named after the wine and was certified by the University of Davis in the 1980s. Well textured, it has a more creamy mouthfeel, due in part to the stirring of its lees.

There is no reason a good sauvignon blanc shouldn't cost as much as a good cabernet sauvignon. Getting consumers to associate this grape with luxury, however, is a challenge.