Tom's blog

Heavenly matches made in Sicily

Not always do I work hard at finding the right wine for tonight's dinner. I doubt that many of you work at it either. Maybe we decide whether to open white or red, but oftentimes it's a matter of what we have and what we thirst for.

That's not always the case, of course. If my wife is putting an effort into planning a remarkable dinner at home, the least I can do is put the same effort into selecting a wine. How well wines go with a gourmet dinner is the food for thought that makes wine-food pairing so much fun.

The Regaleali Estate

The Regaleali Estate

And I had fun one recent night -- not at home but at an exquisite restaurant in my new hometown of Naples, FL. Sea Salt is unquestionably one of the top dining venues in Naples, a vibrant nucleus of fine restaurants in a relatively small town. 

At a special wine dinner featuring wines from Sicily, owner-chef Fabrizio Aielli teamed with visiting chef Ludovico De Vivo of Regaleali Estate to produce an incredible four-course dinner. The food was a perfect pairing with an eclectic selection of Sicilian wines, an experience that reminded me that professional chefs can do a much better job than home chefs in challenging the palate.  The experience was a jolting reminder of what role wine plays in the hands of detail-minded chefs. 

Although Sicily continues to struggle finding a niche in the wine market and becoming known more for quality than quantity, the wines I tasted on this night gave showed promise of a better future. Younger generations of wine makers are finally moving up the bar and applying practices that eventually will reap results.

A grillo, for instance, was far more balanced and round than I have experienced in the past. A grape variety commonly used to make marsala, grillo is common to Sicily. It does well here because it can withstand the high temperatures generated by the scirocco winds of North Africa. But cool night temperatures in vineyards with high elevation give the grapes a needed respite.

The Tasca d'Almerita Grillo Cavallo delle Fate ($20) had fresh acidity with generous citrus aromas and easy apricot flavors with a dash of minerality. This is a wine that won't overwhelm delicate foods. It didn't overpower Sea Salt's incredible hearts of palm "ossobuco" filled with truffle, scallop and abalone. Don't try this at home, as they say.

Tasca d'Almerita Lamuri Nero d'Avola ($20), another indigenous grape variety to Sicily, had much more depth than I customarily find in this grape variety. In fact, wow, how far this wine has come to greatness. It has great depth and complexity. Black cherry and blackberry flavors with a hint of rosemary and subtle, soft tannins.

My favorite wine of the night was the Tasca d'Almerita Rosso del Conte Contea di Sciafani ($70), which was paired with bison and porcini, cippolini and offal game sauce. Food with this intensity requires a big wine and the Tasca delivered. 

If you can find these wines, you'll be rewarded with good value.

Rediscovering a good merlot

Conventional wisdom is that merlot has suffered a decrease in sales as a result of the 2004 movie "Sideways." As much as Miles denounced this noble Bordeaux grape variety in the famous movie, his impact paled in comparison to what producers did with the grape.  Fault for merlot's downward spiral are misplaced, in my rearview mirror.

For years merlot suffered from producers who planted the grape in wrong areas and then insisted on bottling it in inferior years. I struggled through a number of these ugly off-springs and, like others, gave up looking for a decently priced merlot. Sure, I could find one in Bordeaux -- Petrus comes to mind -- but finding a good merlot in Napa Valley was a crapshoot. The worst ones were vegetal or astringently herbal and sickly ripe.

However, a number of vineyards stuck to merlot even though they suffered the financial consequences of a grape variety that fell out of consumer favor.  Such is the case with Swanson Vineyards, a Napa Valley producer who has made merlot its centerpiece since Clarke Swanson bought the property in 1985.

I was enjoying Swanson merlot long before "Sideways" debuted, but lost track of it in recent years. The brand, inventory, winery and tasting room were purchased by Vintage Wine Estates in 2015, although Clarke Swanson continues to own the vineyards. 

Reuniting with Swanson's 2013 merlot was a treat: it is every bit as good as it was a dozen years ago. Full bodied and well balanced, it has concentrated plum and blackberry notes with effusive plum aromas. For $32, it is a steal.

Swanson's success is due in part to its prime vineyards, located adjacent to those of Opus One and Silver Oak.

Swanson doesn't have a lock on great California merlot. I also like those from Mt. Brave, La Jota, Ehlers, Miner and Matanzas Creek.

Guzzle Buddy goes too far for me

I'm all for having fun while drinking wine. I mean, those of who collect the stuff can be a little stuffy. Wine, as we are fond of saying, is a drink for the masses -- and not just for Mass. However much fun it can be, it's serious business when consumed in quantity.

So, being the party-pooper that I am, I was taken aback by a new gizmo that encourages wine guzzling. Appropriately called the "Guzzle Buddy," the $30 gizmo is an enormous glass that attaches to a bottle. You never have to refill the glass and you won't even have to share the wine. As the promotional material brags, "Pouring is Boring" and "Plug it and Chugh it."

Doesn't this encourage over-consumption? Other than getting a good laugh, I can't imagine any practical purpose for it.

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. 


Keeping up with Cotes du Rhone

I usually like zinfandel or syrah with my chili, but the other night I had a hankering for a wine from the Cotes du Rhone. This region produces inspiring wines at affordable prices -- often cheaper than many California zinfandels.

I popped a 2011 Domaine de Cristia Rasteau and was struck by its quality. The village of Rasteau produces some of the more tannic and ageworthy cotes du rhone and that was the case here. At 5 years, it was still evolving but drinking beautifully with the chili. Mind you, this is a wine that cost me $25.

If you want to start or expand a cellar this year, this is a good start. For the price, it is a wine hard to beat and that applies to most cotes du rhone from Rasteau.

Cheap vs. expensive: your call

In the past several months there have been a number of stories and exposes that show most consumers can't tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines. Although this is not surprising, it's sets up a conclusion that no one should bother paying more for their wines.

I beg to differ. 

Many people often dismiss their ability to discriminate between wines with comments like, "I can't tell the difference" or "I'm no expert." But I'm surprise how wrong most of them can be. In fact, I've put them in front of bagged wines and challenged them to answer only one question: which wine do you like the most?" Some chose showy wines with forward fruit and a cheap price tag, but those who drink wine often easily identified the expensive wines even if they didn't like them the most.

I am sometimes envious of people who are sastified drinking bulk wines. They save themselves a lot of money and are just as happy as me drinking an expensive Bordeaux. But liking expensive wines and being able to discriminate does not command an apology.

I probably sample a dozen wines or more a week and the routine has soured me on "average" wines. There are a ton of products well enough made to satisfy any undiscriminating crowd, but I've passed that point. They bore me. Another chardonnay doesn't do it any more.  So, I reach into the cellar -- not for a 10-year-old Bordeaux, but a reasonably priced wine that exceeds its price in quality and that offers something different, something very good.

What are those wines? 

Atteca, for one. I drank my last bottle of 2007 Atteca just recently and for less than $20 it delivered as much satisfaction as my $60 burgundies. Made from old-vine grenache, this Spanish gem is incredibly floral with tons of thick, sweet-berry fruit. I'm buying more -- and you don't have to wait 10 years to enjoy this.

Spain produces some incredibly delicious wines. One of my all-time favorites is Clio from Jumilla, but it's price tag is more in line with ageworthy wines: $45. 

Southern France also produces those grenache-syrah blends that fufill the "different" requirement in my book. Wines from the Cotes du Rhone, for instance, are often under $25. Parallele 45, Belluruche, and the serious wines from the village of Rasteau are perennial stars. Look to the Languedoc-Roussillon region, too, for values.

If you prefer West Coast wines, there are few value wines in the pinot noir category where you get what you pay for. There are great values to be found from Columbia Crest in Washington, Cline from California, Marietta (Old Vine is a killer) from California.

Drink whatever you like, but don't be gulled into believing you won't be able to tell the difference.

Chronically good and casual

Josh and Jake Beckett were kicking back in the middle of the 2014 harvest in Paso Robles when the conversation turned to making wines that were "chronic," oddly a word they chose to describe something good. Frankly, I don't have enough "chronic" things in my life.

They decided the country needed more casual wines, so they embarked on a winemaking adventure and new label, "Chronic Cellars."  

I've tasted several vintages of these crazy wines and decided that the brothers have found a niche. First, you have to get past the label, which targets the adverturesome spirit of millennials. Adorned with a skull and crossbones, each blend identifies a lifestyle: Purple Paradise, Sofa King, Dead Nuts, Suite Petite. The blends are anything but conventional: tannat is thrown in with Rhone varieties syrah and grenache (Sofa King), zinfandel joins tempranillo (Dead Nuts), zinfandel complements syrah (Purple Paradise). You can drink these wines with casual dinners, like pizza, hamburgers, pasta, on a Friday night and feel good -- chronically good.

And they're delicious and cheap -- $15 apiece. If the label doesn't start a conversation, the wine will.

Another look at Clos Pegase

I remember when Clos Pegase opened in the mid 1980s. Who could forget? It was the most lavish wine facility in Napa Valley and soon became the scorn of traditionalists who saw nothing but oneupmanship. That certainly included its neighbor, Sterling Vineyards, whose visitors could look down on Clos Pegase when they boarded Sterlilng's gondola. 

The source of contempt -- which became an unsuccessfuly lawsuit -- was owner Jan Shrem's excessive use of precious water for waterfalls and other water features.. But underneath this complaint was Shrem's post-modern architectural tastes. Sculptures, including that of a thumb, were displayed all around the Calistoga estate.

Looking back at this controversy today, I suspect Shrem was misunderstood and maybe ahead of his time. Although nothing came close to Clos Pegase's display in the tame '80s, since then I've seen similar extravagance at other wineries, such as Ferrari-Carano. 

Shrem was hardly an art amateur. He had a committee review proposals and was a respectable art collector who just wanted to combine his love of art with his love of wine. His estate grew from 50 acres to 450 acres and it wasn't long before the tour buses started to line up. With that Shrem struggled to get noticed for something more than his taste for modern architecture. 

But I remember it for its Bordeaux-like sauvignon blanc.

Shrem sold the property in 2013 to Leslie Rudd, owner of Dean & DeLuca, and his partners at Vintage Wine Estates. Most of the sculptures -- including works by Henry Moore, Jean Dubuffet and Francis Bacon -- were donated to the University of California at Davis. Gone is most of the sculptures and thus most of the long-forgotten controversy.

I had a moment to recall this episode while recently enjoyed the 2014 Clos Pegase Mitsuko's Vineyard Chardonnay ($30). The quality of the wine far exceeds its price. It has exotic mango and papaya notes with a hint of lemon and butterscotch. Very lush in style and appealing to those who like a little oak with their wine. At least the wine lived on.



Reaching new Heitz

In a world of ever-changing ownerships, there is comfort in seeing an old brand that has survived the challenges of time. Heitz Cellars brings me such comfort. 

Joe Heitz founded Heitz Cellars in 1961 when there were only a couple dozen of post-war farmers making wine in Napa Valley. He stood alongside such iconic pioneers as Andre Tchelistcheff, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Lee Stewart, Louis Martini and Charles Krug who brought old-world winemaking to the valley. Most of these people have since passed but their legacy lives on in new generations. 

Heitz left his mark on California winemaking by being the first to make a single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon. While others were blending the grapes from several vineyards, Heitz landed on a particular vineyard that produced a unique flavor profile. In 1965, he struck up a handshake deal -- still in existence -- with Tom and Martha May to use grapes exclusively from their 14-acre vineyard. It was Heitz's idea to put their name on the label and thus was born the first single-vineyard cabernet: Heitz Cellars Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

The wine that sold for less than $10 then sells for $225 today. It has more awards than almost any other Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. It's 1970 Martha's Vineyard cabernet placed ninth in the 1978 Judgment of Paris tasting and scored well in similar tastings afterward.  It set a benchmark 46 years ago that remains today.

Heitz saw in the terroir a special flavor that makes this wine so great. In fact, the clone's identity remains a family secret. 

I recently tasted the winery's regular Napa Valley chardonnay ($27) and cabernet sauvignon ($52). They are great wines. The 2015 chardonnay has generous aromas of peach and lemon and tropical fruit flavors with a lush mouthfeel and a dash of sweet vanillin oak. 

The 2012 Heitz Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has fresh, dark berry fruit, great depth and complexity.  

Don't confuse your butterballs

The wine industry is as rife with copyright infringements as the music industry. We all remember the famous case between Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Stags' Leap Winery, the end result being that Stags' Leap Winery had to put its apostrophe behind the "s." There have been other legal issues infringing on the names "champagne" and "hearty burgundy."

Now comes Butterball to sue McWilliams Wine Group in Australia for its Butterball Chardonnay. It argues that the use of the name "butterball" could lead consumers to believe it is made by the North Carolina turkey processor of the same name. 

Huh? Never mind that Butterball doesn't make wine or that it has no presence in Australia. It just wants to protect its iconic name. I mean, let McWilliams get away with this one and we'll see Butterball cars and Butterball jeans, right?

When I was in the newspaper business, I would get threatening letters from lawyers if the newspaper used "kleenex" to generically describe tissue paper and "jet ski" to identify a personal watercraft. It was insane.

Maybe the bigger question is why on earth any respectable chardonnay producer would want to associate their wine with heavy butter. Isn't this the label Australian winemakers were trying to shed as consumers opt for more restrained chardonnay?


Getting into New Zealand pinot noir

There once was a time when I struggled mightily to like New Zealand pinot noir. Like its sauvignon blanc (I still struggle with it), the pinot noir often had aggressive acidity and bright but immature fruit. It didn't even try to mimic burgundy, where great pinot noir is defined. I just didn't find it friendly, warm or hospitable.

My, how times have changed. Even small producers are finally making world-class pinot noir. For me, the country's pinot noir has overtaken its vaunted sauvignon blanc

The best regions are being better defined along with the best winemaking practices. Central Otago was among the first to gain attention with its complex wines. Add to that Canterbury and Waipara. Marlborough on the North Island has improved dramatically in recent years.

Relatively young among the world's wine regions, New Zealand is now home to more than 700 producers - an incredible growth for a grape variety that really didn't start until the 1970s. Growth like this doesn't come without problem. Given the youth of the vines, you can't expect burgundy.  Then, the prices aren't even close either. You get a decent New Zealand pinot noir for less than $50.

I noted the progress of this region while tasting the 2014 Nobilo Icon Pinot Noir ($22) from the Waihopai Valley. The vineyards are only 11 years old, but the fruit was hardly green. There were ripe blackberry, red currant and black cherry flavors with a dose of mocha. For the price this is a very nice wine.

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.



Aging that Oregon pinot noir

Several years ago I stopped by Domaine Drouhin to catch up with its fabulous pinot noir and meet with Veronique Boss-Drouhin. I was hoping to disprove a theory -- one I regrettably espoused in a column -- that Oregon wines did not age well.  My conclusion was based on a handful of 5-year-old pinot noirs that had passed their prime.

Veronique has been with Domaine Drouhin since its launch in 1988, but she balances her time between Oregon and Burgundy, where she oversees Maison Joseph Drouhin as well. I was in luck: she was in Oregon when I was passing through. 


We tasted some older wines together and she persuaded me that her Oregon wines had as much an ability to age as her burgundies -- just maybe not for as long as the great burgundies.

I brought home some of her iconic flagship, Cuvee Laurene, from the 2009 vintage. Named after daughter, the Laurene gets the best grapes of the harvest and is more restrained than most Oregon pinot noirs.

I decided to open a bottle and was shocked at the stage it was in. The obvious tannin and tight cluster of flavors indicated that it was still evolving. Or was it? Would the fruit ever emerge after the tannins faded? I could taste the potential -- but not the reality. Damn. I hate opening expensive wines prematurely, but truthfully I wasn't convinced by this bottle that the wine would get better. 

Drouhin's more elegant, restrained style is more like burgundy, but it gives me pause about how well it will age. However, the Laurene experience shows that a delicate wine -- ala a great burgundy -- doesn't mean a short-lived wine.