Tom's blog

The art of cloning pinot noir

I've always been fascinated with pinot noir clones. Winemakers seem to use them like weapons, dispatching them to create a certain flavor profile that adapts well to their terroir. Clonal selection isn't unique to pinot noir, but it certainly is popular.

Not as popular is clonal massale, an ancient but once traditional practice of interbreeding clones. It is after all the process used to create cabernet sauvignon, a cross between cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. Without such a daring clonal massale, we wouldn't have today the most ubiquitous grape variety in the world.

Yesterday I met with Luisa Ponzi, winemaker at Ponzi Vineyards in the Willamette Valley. She inherited from her father a 2-acre vineyard that with the help of wine pioneer Dick Erath and Oregon State University was planted in 1975 with 22 clones in Ponzi's Abetina Vineyard. The idea was to tag each of the clones and study their performance. But Luisa, who came to know clonal massale while she was studying in Burgundy in the 1990s, decided to use those vines to create a monster -- well, a nice monster.

She loved the intensity of the pinot noir made from the experimental Abetina Vineyard, so she expanded the vineyards planted to clonal massale to 30 acres. Five Dijon clones are blended with the original 22 heritage clones at the Avellana Vineyard.

So what did this accomplish in the bottle? Pinot noirs made with a single clone can have a monolithic flavor profile -- predictable and outstanding when the juice is blended with that from another clone. However, like natural yeast is unpredictable but brilliant, clonal massale creates variety and surprise. 

The variety is evident in the vineyard. Leaves vary in shape and color, grape clusters are of different sizes and color. Doesn't this lead to uneven ripening?

Luisa says yes, but adds; "The overripe berries compensate for the underripe and they balance themselves out."

The grapes are picked at the same time and fermented as a single lot.

The wines from clonal massale have a broad flavor profile that is uniqe from the pinot noirs made with a combination of a few clones.

The 2014 Ponzi Abetina Vineyards Pinot Noir ($105) made from the 22 original clones that were part of the 1975 experiment. Aged in oak (50 percent new) for 20 months, it exudes complexity and depth. Black cherry flavors are accented with hints of cinnamon, nutmeg and chocolate. Luisa says it is her favorite pinot noir.

The 2014 Ponzi Avellana Pinot Noir ($105) is made from the experimental Chehalem Mountains vineyard, planted in 2006 with randomly space Pommard and heirloom clones, has plum notes and more serious tannins with Asian spices.

Ponzi, one of the oldest wineries in the Willamette, makes great pinot noirs across the board. But these two, albeit expensive, are extraordinary.

Will other winemakers adopt clonal massale? Luisa says many come out to see the site and taste the wine, but the risk of experimentation discourages them.

 

 

 

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.

Columbia Valley: a sense of adventure

One sure sign of a wine-growing region that is still maturing is the breadth of its grape varieties. And, in Washington state, the breadth is evident in a trip to a wine shop.

I was scanning the labels to stock up on a few wines for our rental cottage. There was the expected array of merlots, syrahs, pinot gris and rieslings for which Washington is best known. But, then, I stumbled across barbera, auxerrois, muller-thurgau and even a few hybrids that were new to me. Maybe these grapes are a winemaker's flight of fancy -- or maybe they are an attempt to discover what grows best in the local climate.

I'm a sucker for the weird, so a Lobo Hills Auxerrois from Yakima Valley beckoned me. Alas, it wasn't inspiring. It's not that inspiring in Alsace either and they've been growing the grape for centuries.  I haven't a clue what inspired Lobo Hills' winemaker to try it out.

Washington's wine community has grown from a handful to more than 750 producers and 13 appellations today.  Other than the wines made by the huge conglomerate and the oldest winery in the state, Chateau Ste. Michelle, I don't know many of them. Most of their wines never make it out of the state because either their productions are small or they can't afford national distribution.  Like teenagers passing through adolescence, growth can be awkward and confusing. However, states like Oregon and New York have emerged from this phase with more national recognition.

Washington needs to be known for more than Chateau Ste. Michelle and the path to success will be through the grape varieties that make the best wine.

 

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. 

Amazon is more than just a river

Is there anything you can't get on Amazon?  Now that it owns Whole Foods, we'll be able to do our grocery shopping online. And, now that it has formed a partnership with King Estate, we'll be able to purchase our wine online too. Well, not me.

This movement toward convenience shopping and generic food and wine puts more distance from old-fashioned approaches -- making wine and selling it through distribution channels that enable consumers to stop by their local wine store and actually walk aisles, talk to knowledgeable sales staff and muse over a vast array of choices.

I was recently gifted a couple of meal from Blue Apron and was shocked by their quality. The meals were inventive and delicious. But, I'm not about to pass up the experience of wandering around a grocery store and musing the possibilities for tonight's dinner.

Call me a neanderthal, but I dread the day when I do my wine shopping online.  I order a lot of stuff from Amazon Prime, but I draw the line at clothes, shoes, food and wine. Younger generations, especially the Millennials, eschew conventions. They buy wines in cans, with weird names and strange colors and blends. There are no rules or standards.

 

Steak and Bordeaux

On  the July 4th holiday,  my mother-in-law gave me a Christmas gift: a Wagyu A5 steak.  I had been searching for a good reason to spend $99 a pound for a steak, and my sweet mother-in-law put me out of my misery by bringing over a one-pound prize specimen to share.  By not spending the money myself, it was easy to justify its cost -- sort of like having your steak and eating it too.

Japanese Wagyu is arguably the best beef on the market. It's A5 is the highest grade that can be awarded for quality. The pampered cows are fed only grain and rice. It is high in amino acids and contains no unsaturated fats. It's almost healthy.

But, just looking at it seems to stiffen the arteries. It is so marbled that you wonder if there is any red meat there.

I know, this is a wine column. I digress.  Given the price of the meat, I pulled out a 12-year-old Grand Puy-Ducasse. Had I known what I was about to eat, I may have chosen a white wine.

After exhausting the knowledge base online, I cut the steak into six slices and used the trimmed fat to oil the sizzling pan.  I carefully exposed each side of each piece to the pan and left some of it in the pan longer so that I could taste the difference between medium rare and medium.  

Although the advice varied, most critics advised medium. They  were correct. To get the most of the marble, the marble needs to do its thing with more heat. The result? OMG. It was steak foie gras. Rich, tender, tasty and with the texture of a stick of butter. It is so rich you don't want more than a few ounces. Of course, I ate up what others didn't want, but was nauseous the next day.  If you have a generous mother-in-law who buys you an A5, go easy.

Because the food was so rich, a Bordeaux just didn't seem to pair well. I like to match wine with texture and there wasn't much for a tannic red wine to work on with the A5. I would have been better off with a Gigondas or a red Burgundy.

Next time I'll get it right. Well, at this price, maybe there won't be a next time. 

Apothic apathy

OK, I continue to try Gallo's Apothic Red in hopes that I'll understand its enduring popularity. I get that the generous fruit flavors make it a delicious quaff, but, my God, the sugar.

As if the sugar isn't enough to ice the tongue, there is enough chocolate flavor to clobber the palate worst than a pie-eating contest. It's like eating a big slice of chocolate cake with an inch of vanilla icing. 

Yet, many people like their wine to taste more like dessert. Why else would producers come up with labels like Cupcake and Layer Cake -- two other popular wine labels?

At $14, the price of Apothic is in a sweet spot (no pun intended) for most consumers. And, Gallo has added Apothic Crush, Apothic White and Apothic Dark to its popular Apothic Red. Both are blends of red grape varieties. 

Most people can detect sweetness when it is greater than .9% residual sugar (or .9 grams per liter). Apothic Red is 1.54 g/l. Ugh. Put is on a popsickle stick.

 

Trader Joe's does it again

The store that made Two-Buck Chuck famous appears to have another hit on its hands: Simpler wines -- in a can.

Cases of this stuff is flying off the shelves -- some stores are reporting sell-outs by mid-day. The reason? The cans are cheap -- $1 each -- and are easily packed in coolers just before the July 4th holiday. 

I haven't been able to find any yet, but I've read that the wine comes in a sparkling white and rose. No grape varieties are identified on the labels. 

I get that cans are portable and cheap, but they aren't for me. No respectable wine enthusiast would be satisfied with a generic wine that is more like soda. What this says to me is that wine's quality is second to its convenience.

Frankly, it's a direction that goes well beyond canned wines. I'm seeing wines with chocolate, blue wines, labels with crazy names and other gimmicks that has demoted the care that historically has gone into the wine-making process.  Yeah, I know, I've lost touch with new generations. I never have been in touch with them. 

I can't imagine a time -- no matter how desperate -- that I would eschew a glass of an exquisite wine from a corked bottle for a chance to guzzle down some cheap plonk from a can.  OK, I'm an old troglodyte and not a Millennial who is as open to canned wine as he is to holy bluejeans.  But for me, it's not about the alcohol, but about the wine.

Still, I can't deny the financial success of Trader Joe's most recent venture. 

 

 

Waiter, there's ice in my wine

I was dining with an old friend the other night at her community association's club house. As soon as she walked up to the bar, the waiter had a glass of her house chardonnay waiting for her -- as she liked it, with ice.

She's not the first person I have encountered who puts ice in their wine. It makes me cringe on behalf of the winemaker who spent time and money balancing his wine. The addition of water disrupts that balance and more accurately dilutes it.

Then, I read an article in Vogue that says many wine professionals have come around to the idea that ice is appearing more often in wine glasses. Some wine producers, such as Moet & Chandon, are even marketing wines that invite the use of ice.  If you can't lick them, join them?

The practice is quite common in southern France where vacationers can be seen in outdoor bistros enjoying a glass of rose on the rocks. Rose is a simple drink and I guess is like sangria where ice cubes are common.  But I can't imagine anyone adding ice to, say, a white burgundy, whose nuances would be destroyed by cold water.

There have been rare occasions when I have slipped an ice cube into a glass of wine -- one cube to cool a chardonnay that is simply too warm to enjoy.  I theorized that I'll finish it before the cube melts, but that's probably me rationalizing a bad decision.  If you want to quickly cool a white wine, you can slip the bottle into the freezer for 10 minutes, or use one of those handy freezer jackets -- I keep three of them in my freezer.

Maybe ice doesn't matter to cheap plonk that has become your house wine. I mean, it's not as if you re-analyze that same old wine during the daily happy hour. But if you just spent $50 on a great chardonnay, or if you are swilling a host's expensive wine, don't embarrass yourself.

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.

 

Don't abandon merlot

It seems like I rarely drink merlot. It's not that I don't respect the grape variety, although many critics do. It's just that I reach for cabernet sauvignon when I want a full-bodied red wine to accompany beef or lamb (now becoming a rarity in our health-conscious house).

But a recent tasting of merlots from Duckhorn gave me renewed interest. 

Dan Duckhorn fell in love with merlot after traveling to St. Emillion, the village in Bordeaux where merlot is predominantly grown. Although many Napa Valley growers were using it in blends in the 1970s, Duckhorn made a commitment to bottling it separately. I'm sure that decision didn't come without some financial loss, but today anyone looking for merlot has to look to Duckhorn.

I tasted five of its merlots from the 2013 and 2014 vintage. Quality like this doesn't come cheap -- prices range from $54 for its entry-level merlot to $98 for its single-vineyards.  In particular, the Three Palms Vineyard merlot remains one of the best in Napa Valley. The fruit from this Napa Valley vineyard is magnificent.

New to me this year was the Stout Vineyard, which is 1,700 feet up Howell Mountain. This is so dense you could paddle it onto toast. Heady, complex and sporting serious tannin, this merlot is huge. 

I know these are budget-breakers for many of you merlot fans, but honestly you need to see what quality means. Those vegetal, weedy merlots that sell for $12 do not reflect the capability of this grape variety.

It takes only a village in the Rhone Valley

The hilltop village of Rasteau.

The hilltop village of Rasteau.

After my cellar disappointed me with a corked, 17-year-old Bordeaux, I was due for a nice surprise. I found it with a 2009 Domaine Chamfort Rasteau, a Cotes du Rhone Villages that I had hoped would stand the test of time. It did, bursting with lavender and herb aromas followed by silky strawberry and blackberry flavors and hints of rosemary and pepper. Delicious, comes to mind.

I remember socking away a few bottles of this after first tasting its heavy tannins and dense fruit shortly after it was released. The hilltop village of Rasteau, an AOC,  is known for producing long-lived wines even though many Cotes du Rhones are intended for consumption within a couple of years.  This wine cost less than $20 a bottle, which makes it a good target for those hoping to start a cellar on a budget.  Trust me, you will be immensely rewarded.

The primary grapes in this region, located just north of Orange, are grenache noir, syrah and mourvedre -- three grapes that give the wine so much dimension, vibrant red fruit flavors and floral aromas. It's a fun wine, but the Cotes du Rhones from Rasteau take fun to a more serious level.

 

 

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.

 

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.

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.