Wine, grape, scores, best wines, rankings, interviews, wine news and wine reviews and criticism as written by wine writers.
__________________________ BY TOM MARQUARDT ___________________________
VEGAN WINE? -- I'm not big on vegan or gluten-free wine. Hell, I don't even understand it. If you're going to dump poison (alcohol) into your system, why worry about animal products?
So what is a vegan wine? A cloudy one with little things floating around. That's because it isn't filtered -- a process that requires gelatin (bones and connective tissues), eggs and other animal byproducts. Red Truck and Frey are two producers considered pro-vegan.
It's not that I embrace filtering, a process that arguably strips a wine of flavor. Wine critic Robert Parker Jr. for years has endorsed unfiltered wines. You just have to get past their cloudiness and suspended crystals -- something that most consumers seen as a spoiled wine. Consumers unfamiliar with this natural process have returned cloudy wines to retailers and restaurants.
But embrace cloudy wines because they are vegan-friendly? Not me. I'm having steak with my cabernet sauvignon -- filtered or unfiltered.
A TAKE-NO-PRISONERS DEAL -- Not many prisoners have a record like The Prisoner. Created by wine genius David Phinney of Orin Swift Cellars in 2000 it was an instant success. People lined up for this heady wine and by 2010 it had grown to 85 million cases a year. Phinney sold it to Huneeus Vintners for a cool $40 million.
As good as that investment was, it didn't come close to Agustin Huneeus' windfall of $285 million when he sold The Prisoner Wine Co. to Constellation earlier this year. Mind you, there are no vineyards to justify this ridiculous price -- it's just the name that Constellation bought. Similarly, Constellation paid $315 million for the Meomi brand.
I thought about all of this as I sipped on the 2015 vintage of The Prisoner, a rich, electic blend of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, syrah and charbono. It's a serious wine with layered fruit flavors of plums, cherries, raspberries, chocolate and spice. But, as much as I like it, I don't get its value. There is a graveyard of trendy cult wines and another one around the corner to displace The Prisoner.
I realize they are building a competitive luxury portfolio, but is this the one to lay out this kind of money? Production of the company's five wines has grown to 211,000 cases and at $47 per bottle for the red blend there is money to be had in this prison. But can these sales continue to rise? Obviously, Constellation thinks so and it is a successful company.
GROWER CHAMPAGNES ROCK -- Champagne's grande marques -- those large houses that dominate the market -- are in denial about how grower champagnes are chiseling away at its foundation. The growth of this market -- only 5 percent of sales so far -- challenges the tradition-bound process of how champagne is made.
Grower champagne is essentially wine made from a grower's grapes. For years small growers have sold their stock to big houses who pay for the marketing and distribution to get champagne sold overseas. Nicolas Feuillatte, for instance, buys grapes from 5,000 growers.
It's been a good partnership between producers and growers, but several growers want a bigger return and they want their family name on the bottle. The handful of renegades who struck out on their own a decade ago has grown to more than 250 today.
Many years ago I visited with the couple that operates Chartogne-Taillet. The contrast with my visit to Moet & Chandon on the same day couldn't have been more stark. I sat at the family dining table with Elisabeth and Philippe Chartogne and met their children just home from school. At Moet I was greeted by several employees and led around a million-dollar crushing facility. Moet & Chandon makes 26 million cases a year -- it's vaunted Dom Perignon is 5 million. Chartogne-Taillet produces about 8,000 cases. It's also less than half the price of Dom Perignon.
Grower champagnes reflect the terroir because the single-vineyard grapes are not blended. A champagne house can draw from hundreds of vineyards in many different regions and vintages. They strike for consistency in style while grower champagnes want to reflect only their vineyard.
Just recently, I participated in a tasting of six grower rose champagnes -- a real delicacy. Many of these champagnes have lower dosage. A high dosage -- sugar added to the bottle after disgorgement to determine its sweetness -- is often high to mask imperfections. I loved the frivolity of the Champagne Marc Hebrart Brut Rose ($53) and the weight of the complex Champagne Jean Lallement Brut Rose ($63). Champagne Geoffroy Rose de Saignee Brut ($65) was the only one made in the saignee method.
Most of these champagnes are imported by Terry Theise, who cut his teeth on small-production German wines but is responsible for making these grower champagnes more available in the U.S.
The trend reminds me of the slow growth of craft beer. The large beer makers didn't take them seriously at first, but over the years they have eroded sales. I see nothing but growth in grower champagnes.
WHITE VS. RED -- What wine we drink is often affected by the weather. That has become more apparent after moving from Maryland to Florida.
At this time of year -- when the leaves are off the trees in Maryland and the food moved from grilled chicken to stews-- my wine choices turned to reds Those cabernets and heady zinfandels I passed up during warmer months came out of the closet. But now that I'm in Florida, the weather is playing tricks on my mind. It's still 80 degrees here.
And I'm not the only one who is confused. As my wife and I find new circles of friends, we have noticed a preference for white wines, particularly chardonnay. In Maryland, our friends seem to prefer red wines -- even in the summer. This unscientific observation is based on what bottles were poured by night's end and our memories of what each particular friend liked the most.
Maybe it's just a difference between friends. But we too find ourselves enjoying white wine more often than usual. I think it's the coolness of a white wine that seems so refreshing in warmer climes. Of course, red wine accounts for 99% of my cellar. So, I rarely take advantage of my aged cabernets unless there is a steak on the grill. I find myself hoarding the white wines. So odd.
Chardonnay still enjoys the number one roost in wine sales -- 13.3% of wine sold vs. 12.1% for cabernet sauvignon.
SIDEWAYS REDUX -- Rex Pickett turned the wine world upside down when he wrote about the alcohol-fused escapades of Miles and Jack in "Sideways." The hilarious story became an award-winning movie, which in turn set off a title wave of sales of pinot noir -- Miles' favorite wine.
It's been 12 years since the movie debuted and people -- including me -- still talk about it. Pinot noir sales soared while merlot -- sullied unmercifully by Miles -- plummeted.
Well, Miles and Jack are back for another round. Pickett's sequel, "Vertical: Passion and Pinot on the Oregon Wine Trail" takes our wine-guzzling duo on another trip to the Northwest. This time they have Miles' aging mother who they pluck from a nursing home with the intention of relocating her to Wisconsin after first stopping for a pinot noir festival in Oregon. They bring along the mother's dog, named Snapper for his feisty attitude, and Joy, the mother's caretaker.
We find Jack world-famous and in high demand because of his book. He gets a steady stream of pinot noirs to review, free lodging and meals and even special service once he is recognized. The fame befits him.
Perhaps the novelty of the original book is gone because I didn't enjoy this book as much. I'm surprised the livers of Miles and Jack can withstand their day-long indulgences. Their behavior mimics that of the pair in the original book, although Miles has no current flame and Jack has left his main squeeze. The writing is equally good in both books and author Pickett even provides a glossary at the end to help readers with his impressive volcabulary.
And there are some funny moments: Miles convinces a veterinarian, who is attending to Snapper's brush with death, to pull his mother's abscess tooth because she refuses hospitalization. And our frolicking duo is just as funny and outlandish as they were in "Sideways." But I wonder if the same behavior hasn't worn out its amusement. We'll see.
The book is out just in time for Christmas at http://www.loosegravelpress.com/store/. If you really want to make this a great gift, book reservations for an Oregon adventure. Pickett even gives you all of his stops at the end of the book.
HEADACHES GO AWAY WITH WHISK OF WAND
There's never a shortage of gadgets in the wine world. The latest inventor hoping to profit from desperate wine enthusiasts is steve Meadows, who like others gets regular headaches after drinking wine.
Meadows is marketing a wand that when whisk makes your problems go away. "The Wand," when inserted in wine for 3 minutes, allegedly removes the offending preservatives that cause headaches: sulfites and histimines.
Meadows says The Wand not only removes the preservatives but it also improves the taste of the wine. Preservatives are the bane of wine producers but critically important to retain a wine's color and freshness.
About 69 percent of wine drinkers develop headaches; 43 percent even have hangovers the next day. Meadows says he hasn't experienced his usual headaches since he has been using The Wand. Others tested said the same. Even restaurants are selling The Wand to its sensitive customers for $3 each.
Maybe this is one gadget that actually has value.
ETUDE -- AN OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN
Jon Priest, winemaker for Etude, has given us a terrific opportunity to compare pinot noir grown in different regions but made by the same winemaker. How appropriate: Etude means "study" in French.
Priest has access to vineyards in arguably the best pinot noir rregions in the world: California, Oregon and New Zealand. The only top region missing is, of course, France. But given the prices of Burgundy vineyards, it would be costly for Priest to make a French pinot noir.
There's nothing not to like about any of the six 2014 regional wines from Etude. The Oregon version from Yamhill Vista Vineyard in the Yamill-Carlton District of the Willamette Valley, is perhaps the most complex with great depth, vibrantly young cherry fruit flavors, and effusive floral aromas. This is one for aging, if you can bear to wait.
The New Zealand edition from Central Otago -- the best region for pinot noir in that country -- has a classic New Zealand personality with tight structure and vibrant fruit.
Out of the three California versions, I liked the North Canyon Vineyard from the Santa Maria Valley. The vineyard's unique orientation -- mountain ridges are facing more east and west instead of the typical north and south -- provides concentrated raspberry and cherry flavors with a good dose of cola and tea.
It isn't often that you can find a single winemaker bringing his talents to starkly different growing regions. What fun.
WINE FOR MILLENNIALS -- OR SUCKERS?
I constantly get samples of wines that are unapologetically targeted for millennials, a group that roughy was born between 1982 and 2002. Promoters often brag about their intended audience and why not? It's a huge block of drinkers with a growing thirst for wine.
However, I am annoyed that the attempt is more about packaging than delivering quality wine. Most of the time the wine has a broad "California" appellation and it's a motley blend of grape varieties without any clear reason other than to use whatever cheap grapes are available.
Does this say that millennials are suckers for cool labels and names and that what's in the bottle doesn't matter? That's what it says to me. How different that strategy is from other age groups, particularly baby boomers, that were more focused on the wine. Would Bordeaux or California cabernet sauvignon have sold better to baby boomers if it had clever names and fancy labels? Nah.
In the last week I've tasted Black Light, a wine that comes in an opaque white bottle, Q&A that offers a wine quiz on the label, and Pam's Cuties that is low-dose white wine in a small can. The wine is passable, but hardly remarkable given their source and price.
One I did really like: SAVED, a California red blend that features an intricate label by tattoo artist Scott Campbell.
FOUNTAIN OF LOUTS -- A tiny village in the Abruzzo reigon of central Italy may have the right idea on how to draw more tourists to its downtown. Many towns in the U.S. should take notice.
The Dora Sarchese vineyard in Caldari di Ortona -- on the Italian pilgrimage route of Cammiono di San Tommaso -- has opened a wine fountain in what looks like an outhouse. OK, the appearances aren't so hot, but think about the hordes of tourists this is going to draw. Americans love a free drink -- yes, it's all free, except to "louts" and "drunkards." That would rule out a lot of Americans.
Maybe this idea isn't for the inner city, but I can see wine flowing in fountains of quaint towns such as Annapolis, Newport, Napa, etc. Lots of people would go out of their way for such a photo op, even if drinking from such a fountain would be health risk.
Last call, anyone?
Stop what you’re doing and start planning your next vacation—and don’t forget to pack a wine glass.
A vineyard in the Abruzzo region of Central Italy has installed the tourist destination of your dreams, a wine fountain, Mashable reports. This magical destination is exactly what it sounds like, a fountain that flows 24-hours a day with red wine. And the best part is that the wine is completely free.
This so-called fontana di vino is located in the Dora Sarchese vineyard in the small town of Caldari di Ortona, which sits on the Italian pilgrimage route of Cammino di San Tommaso. According to The Local, the fountain is a joint project of the vineyard and a non-profit group that works to protect the pilgrimage route. It was inspired by a similar wine fountain that opened on Spain’s pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a few years ago.
JACKSON IN OREGON -- Jackson Family Wines have been making wine in Oregon for a few years now, but a recent pinot noir I tasted made me take notice.
The 2014 La Crema Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($30) is a stunning wine with great balance, classic Willamette flavors and a lot of depth. I can't say the same about La Crema's California pinot noir, which in my memory has been generic and indistinguishable from other inexpensive California pinot noirs.
This one is worth seeking. Juicy, ripe with cherry and clove flavors, and those varietal earthy notes we have grown to love from this region.
A LABEL TO REMEMBER -- Leese-Fitch has been on fire with its terrific, inexpensive wines. They have a strong presence in restaurant because owners can give their customers a good deal plus make good money.
I was overwhelmed by the delicious factor of two recent releases. Stop what you're doing and buy these wines.
The 2014 Leese-Fitch Firehouse Red ($12) is a motley collection of petite sirah (33 percent), syrah, merlot, zinfandel, barbera, mourvedre and tempranillo. It’s fruity enough to serve as an aperitif, but would easily do well with grilled chicken or sausage, tomato-based pasta and hamburgers. The grapes are sourced from five appellations, but who cares at this price?
I also liked the 2015 Leese-Fitch Moonbuzz ($22) is a page from southern France with its fruity blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre. I loved the blueberry notes from mourvedre, the raspberry flavors from syrah and strawberry from grenache. It's such a delightful quaff from the Central Coast that I'm in the mood to buy more.
RYNDERS RIDES AGAIN - Several years ago I had the pleasure of meeting with Tony Rynders, winemaker at Domaine Serene in the Willammette Valley. Tony is very personable, but also very knowledgeable about making wine in Oregon. It was with great anticipation, then, that I tasted his new project, Zena Crown Vineyard.
Rynders founded his own label, Tendril Wine Cellars, in 2008. Since then he has been working with fruit from the Zena Crown Vineyard, once a source of grapes for Soter, Penner-Ash and Beaux Freres. Starting with the 2013 vintage, he has joined Shane Moore in making hand-crafted pinot noirs under the Zena Crown label.
The two pinots I tasted --Conifer and Slope -- demonstrate Rynders' focus on small-lot, quality pinot noirs. They were very well balanced, rich and complex with a true reflection of the Eola-Amity Hills style.
The brand was purchased by Jackson Family Wines in 2013. It's their first venture in Oregon and one I suspect will bring them huge rewards.
GREAT CHAMPAGNE -- I recently enjoyed an excellent rose champagne that is just getting traction in this country. Champagne Forget-Brimont Brut Rose is a relative bargain at $50. It is packed with raspberry flavors and lively, persistent bubbles. Although this may not be the season for champagne for many of you, think about the advice given to me by a spokesperson for Pommery: "everyday is a reason to drink champagne."
CONSISTENT BARGAIN WINES -- I'm sorry for the lapse in new posts. My wife and I moved into a new home in Florida. Even with help from friends, it took a week to clear boxes and settle down.
But the activity didn't stop us from drinking some good wine. While we wait for our wine cellar cooler to be installed so that i can free my wine from cold storage, we bought a few bottles to tide us over. Three red wines in particular stood out as great bargains: the Chapoutier Cotes du Rhone Belleruche ($12), evodia ($10) and Breca garnacha ($14).
The grape varieties in these wines almost guarantee that they will be delicious. The Belleruche is mostly syrah and grenache; the evodia and Breca from Spain are made from old-vine grenache. They are easy to drink but are great foils to spicy barbecued meats and pasta.
It reminds me that in searching for wines it is best to remember the grape varieties you like and not necessarily the producer.
THERE'S HOPE -- Perhaps you are like me in that you worry about your wine consumption. I taste wine daily and, yes, even consume some. I read every story about the health benefits of daily wine consumption and also those about its risks. I even take a daily dose of milk thistle to protect my liver.
So when I read recently about the drinking habits of Antonio Docampo Garcia, I took particular notice.
Garcia recently died at the ripe age of 107, but it certainly wasn't his daily consumption of wine that did in the old Spanish coot. He never drank water and instead drank 4 bottles of of his homemade wine every day -- two for lunch and two for dinner.
Frankly, I don't know how a man so old and so soused could function. Even if his homemade wine was low in alcohol, the accumulation of alcohol's toxins would destroy most livers long before the age of 107. So, Garcia's phenomenal ability to absorb so much accumulative poison is hardly a reason to think you would be so fortunate.
Don't make this man your model, but enjoy your wine with less guilt.
JUST CAN IT -- It seems like consumers just can't be satisfied with glass when it comes to wine containers. First, there were Tetra boxes, then small kegs behind the bar and now cans. What's wrong with the bottle?
Well, there's plenty wrong if you ask millennials, 76 percent of whom say packaging means a lot when they search for a wine (Nielsen). A can is easy to store and can be tossed in a cooler on the way to the beach or tailgate party. Lugging around a bottle can be such a pain in the ass.
Although canned wine accounts for less than a percent of wine sales, it is on a meteoric ascent. It is particularly strong in warm weather months when, according to Nielson, 90 percent of the wine is consumed outdoors. It's no wonder, then, that most canned wines are white varietals, such as pinot grigio and chardonnay.
The ones I recently tasted were decent wines, although nothing special -- no unique terroir, complexity or depth. But those who enjoy them don't seem to care much about depth. Without a vintage or a specific region, these wines are very generic.
But buyer beware: the cost is not much less than a bottle of inexpensive wine. A 375ml is about $7-8; a glass bottle with the twice the volume can be had for less. And, most people who see a can of wine like they see a can of soda or beer are in for an intoxicating surprise when they empty it. It's half of a bottle of wine.
I can't get used to the metallic taste of the aluminum can, although that may be in my head. Poured into a glass, the wine tastes better and I suspect similar to equivalent bottle wines.
One I liked was the Underwood Oregon Rose. Clean, simple and tasty. I can see throwing these into a cooler and heading to the beach or a boat.
At least they make good ash trays for your smoking friends.
FROM THE LIBRARY -- Hess made some excellent red wines in the past, but lately it seems to be more known for entry-level, inexpensive wines that are commonly found in stores and restaurants. In particular, the chardonnay is a shadow of what it used to be
However, I recently stumbled across an orphan bottle of a 2007 Hess Allomi Vineyard cabernet sauvignon. Wow, it blew me away. Still well-structured, it sported lasting dusty tannins, deep and ripe black fruit and enduring balance.
About the time you've given up on a winery, it proves you wrong.
HAIL TO THE GRAPES -- This is the time of the harvest year when winemakers rarely sleep. It's not so much the work that is so exhausting, but the worry over the weather that steals sleep. With the beginning of harvest just weeks away, weather can turn a perfectly ripe crop to mush.
And so it has. Chablis and Beaujolais and the Maconnais have reported significant damage from hailstorms. Just this week, the Languedoc has chimed in with depressing reports of severe hailstorm damage. Golf-ball size hail has wiped out some vineyards in the Pic-st-Loup region.
Frankly, I cannot imagine the grief of carefully tending vines for months only to have the effort squandered over something that isn't in your control. I don't know if French vineyards are insured, but those who don't have insurance face significant financial losses.
Centuries ago, the local churches would ring their enormous bells to ward off hailstorms. That didn't work so well.
GOOD CHARDONNAY VALUES IN BURGUNDY -- It's not hard to complain about chardonnay, one of the most maligned grape varieties. It can be overoaked, buttery, and even sweet. However, i recently came across a series of chardonnays from Burgundy that set my palate back on course.
Produced by Maison Joseph Drouhin, the village chardonnays are an introduction to the producers pricey but delicious great burgundies. However, I was satisfied to stop here and just enjoy the simplicity of these wines. It is how chardonnay should be made.
One of my favorite is the Macon-Villages ($13.50). Made at low temperatures in stainless-steel tanks, the wine is clean and simple with effusive aromas and easy acidity. I also enjoyed the Saint-Veran ($19) for its minerality and tropical fruit flavors.
These are medium-bodied, unadorned chardonnays that can be enjoyed as aperitifs or alongside simply prepared foods.
SPEAKING OF DROUHIN -- If you, like us, enjoy the clean, minerally flavors of Chablis, heed our warning: stock up before prices rise. Many vineyards in Chablis were damaged by spring frost and hail last year, which means smaller yields and thus higher prices for the 2016s. But there are still some good values to be found among the currently available 2014s.
We recently enjoyed the 2014 Maison Joseph Drouhin Vaudon Chablis ($23) and its Chablis Premier Cru ($40). These chardonnays can be appreciated for their leanness and simplicity. But don’t be fooled: these are more full-bodied than the palate suggests.
Laurent Drouhin said in an email that his vineyards were spared the hail, but not the spring frost. In a region this far north, frost is an annual threat.
“This will put pressure on the 2016s’ availability, for sure. The 2015s will not see a price increase on the Chablis AC as quantities were good. It will put pressure on some of the premier crus and grand crus if 2016 confirms to be a short vintage.”
He added that in general prices have been under pressure for past vintages because of unusually short crops. However, Drouhin seems to have held their prices more than most producers.
Chablis is not meant to age more than a couple of years, so buy what you can drink in that period of time.
THE SAD TRUTH OF AMERICAN TASTES -- The other day I gave a few unfinished bottles of sample wines to some of my mother-in-laws' friends. A day later I heard reports that the wines were "bad" or at least not to their liking. The wines were hardly "bad." They cost between $20 and $30 and I had tasted them all first. Where was the disconnect?
I thought it odd, but heard the same thing after I passed along a few more bottles. Then, it dawned on me that this was a crowd that normally drank sweet wines under $10 a bottle. One declared his favorite bottle was Barefoot muscat. Why would I expect her to like a dry chardonnay when her palate was conditioned to cheap, sweet plonk?
Then I read a fabulous post by Craig Camp, general manager of Troon Vineyards. Camp's "aha" moment came while standing in line at Starbucks and watching people order bizarre concoctions only Starbucks could create. Many of the creations were ladened with sugar and additives to cover the bitterness for which coffee is known and enjoyed.
Camp laments winemakers similarly have accommodated consumers by disguising bitterness with residual sugar and making these overripe fruit bombs that are better served as dessert.
He's right. Look at the market: some of the most popular wines (Meiomi, Menage et Trois, Barefoot, et al) are sweet. Muscat is one of the fastest growing wine categories. New releases include strange Starbucks-esque concoctions such as chocolate wine. Have we lost focus on what makes wine so unique and so special? Does every bottle have to taste like Mountain Dew?
Everyone is entitled to their palates, but given a choice, I'll take acidity over sugar any day. I prefer my coffee naturally bitter too. Like me.
MONDAVI'S CELEBRATION -- Although he's no longer alive, Robert Mondavi was certainly enjoying the golden anniversary of the winery that still bears his name. There are few wineries still around that long which deserve such applause.
An icon in the fine wine movement, Mondavi was a pioneer in transitioning California's wine industry from making plonk wine to crafting quality wine. It wasn't done without controversy challenge.
His winery continues to make outstanding and often value wines, but one we recently tasted deserves your attention: the 2014 Robert Mondavi Bourbon Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon ($14). A limited edition, it may be hard to fine. Besides the varietal black fruit flavors, this one aged entirely in charred Kentucky bourbon barrels has significant vanilla, brown sugar and toasted flavors.
CATASTROPHIC WEATHER IN FRENCH VINEYARDS -- Several reports from France have indicated a catastrophe is brewing from spring frost and hail in several regions. Hardest hit were Champagne and the Loire.
Overall, production in France is expected to fall 8 percent. But in Champagne and Loire -- northern regions more vulnerable to spring frost -- a 32 percent drop is anticipated. Although not as bad, Burgundy is expecting 23 percent less production.
Fewer wines mean only one thing for collectors: higher prices.
ENJOYING CHARDONNAY NAKED -- Got your attention? It's not that I liked to take off my clothes when I drink chardonnay -- I just like them unoaked. OK, "naked" is the industry's cute term for unoaked, meaning the wine is not fermented or aged in oak barrels. The result is a very clean, crisp wine that complements food much better than an oaky, effusive chardonnay.
The beauty of this can be seen in the 2015 Stoller Dundee Hills chardonnay, a bargain at $25. Perhaps owner Bill Stoller passed along the savings from forgoing $1,000 oak barrels. This wine has sex appeal with racy lime notes and crisp acidity.
Stoller's 2014 reserve chardonnay for just $10 more is a big, ageworthy wine that blew me away.
Dear More About Wine: Your recent column on wine deals was interesting to me. For the last 20 years or so I have been telling people how great Columbia Crest wines are – especially their gewürztraminer. It is the only wine I will drink! I grew up drinking wine in Germany and maybe that is why I like this grape variety. So please try to praise my wine too. – S. Joyce
You are so correct. We have been extolling the value of Columbia Crest for years, although not recently. Made under the massive Ste. Michelle Estate wine group, Columbia Crest makes outstanding wines across the board. Its cabernet sauvignon is a great deal and its chardonnay is a wine you can pour to a crowd. Generally, their prices are $12 or less. So there!
UNIQUE WINES NEXT DOOR -- I love going to a party and finding a wine I’ve never tasted before. Too often hosts resort to the old standbys that a wine merchant thrust into their hands. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to find a red and white wine that intrigues the palate and is still reasonably priced.
So, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bevy of unique wines at a rather large party I recently attended. The host meticulously sought out wines that went with his wife’s copious Italian cuisine. To start he served the Bortolotti Brut prosecco from Valdobbiandene. His other wines included a Ca Maiol trebbiano from Lugana, Bolzano blend of schiava and lagrein grapes grown in the Alto-Adige region, Cesari Jema Corvina made entirely of gruner veltliner grapes (in Italy!), and a great Antolini Valpolicella Ripasso from Verona.
I have enjoyed the ripasso and the Cesari gruner veltliner before, but the others were new to me. I suspect all of them were new to most people at the party.
Not surprisingly, they were the talk of the party. Wisely, the host thoughtfully provided a copy of the list of wines and tasting notes for those who wished to purchase some for later consumption.
Let me be a model for your next party!
WOULD MILES LIKE HIS PINOT NOIR TODAY? -- It has been 12 years since "Sideways" became one of the hottest wine-theme movies ever. Miles, the movie's main character, was known for his love of red wine and more so for his hatred of merlot. Merlot has yet to recover from the movie's bum rap.
One of the famous scenes takes place in the small tasting room of Sanford Winery, located in Sta. Rita Hills. Miles describes a rose to his sidekick Jack; then winemaker Chris Burroughs even makes a cameo appearance in the scene.
Following the movie, Sanford's rose sold out and visitors overwhelmed its small tasting room. In short, Sanford reaped huge sales from the movie for years.
I was musing over the question whether Miles would enjoy Sanford's pinot noir as much today because a lot has changed at Sanford since 2004. First, Terlato bought the property in 2006 and immediately hired a new winemaker -- Steve Fennell. Together with Doug Fletcher, vice president of winemaking for Terlato Wine Group, Fennell replanted much of the prized Sanford and Benedict vineyard.
Second, he re-crafted the style of Sanford's pinot noirs. Gone were the heavy, hedonistic fruit bombs that Miles tasted on his alcohol-sodden tour of Santa Rita Hills. In its place is a more delicate, burgundian-like pinot noir. The 2012 Sanford Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir I recentlhy tasted was a stunning contrast to the Sanford pinots I remembered from my visit to Sanford in 2005..
Said Fennell in a recent phone call, "Pinot noir is a special grape. It should have delicacy, balance and elegance."
Fennell said that after he arrived, he integrated viticulture and winemaking. He focused first on the vineyards and gaining an understanding of the differences between blocks, soil and drainage. Then he was more careful about extracting fruit. His pinot noirs are fermented in open stainless-steel tanks and punched down three times a day.
Would Miles approve? "I think he would appreciate them," Fennell says.
I'll be writing more on Sanford in a future column. Stay tuned.
WINE SPECTATOR HONORS WINE LISTS (YAWN) -- Wine Spectator magazine recently released its coveted list of restaurants that earned an award for its wine list. Pardon my yawn.
The list is “coveted” by the thousands of restaurants who received one of three awards, but not so much by those who understand what it means. It's an advertising gimmick for the restaurants and a financial boondoggle for the magazine.
Wine Spectator charges a restaurant as much as $375 to enter the competition. There is no on-site review of the restaurant or its cellar conditions, but instead a computer examination of its submitted wine list. Winning an award gives the restaurant the privilege of posting the award at its door. And, the magazine actively encourages local media to highlight restaurants which received an award.
The chosen restaurants I’m familiar with earned their rewards because their wine lists are very good. But the wines are also very expensive. I didn’t see any awards go to restaurants that offer unique wines at value prices.
In fact, the nearly 2,500 restaurants who were bestowed “Award of Excellence” were recognized because in part they have at least 90 wines on their lists. Although the lists are also expected to show diversity, the criteria says the wines should match the menu in “price and style.” So, a little Italian joint that serves a great but cheap chianti is a long shot. Yet isn’t that where more of us eat?
WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH ROSE? -- I've been sampling a ton of roses in recent weeks -- all part of this writing gig. I couldn't be deeper in heaven even if someone poured me a glass of Petrus.
I've loved rose since I first tasted it decades ago. Then, it was embarrassing to be caught with such a sissy drink and a drink that the casual observer equated with white zinfandel. After beating readers relentlessly about the value of rose, they finally seem to be listening. And, producers are jumping on the rose bandwagon to enjoy the profits. I've never tasted so many different roses in my life and from producers who never made one before.
So what prompted consumers to change their minds? A lot had to do with the hype that has been generated by critics like me. But, roses' new popularity in this country also has to do with a more adventurous consumer. Rose sales have grown 10 times faster than table wines in general.
Of course, the French have adopted rose as their summer drink for centuries. For them, all this buzz here is typical American tardiness to the wine front. You can't go into a French bistro without rose being served in carafes. Some wine producers in southern France --particularly Bandol -- make nothing but rose. Hereabouts, rose is an afterthought of American wine producers. And how can you make a quality rose if it's made from leftovers?
After blazing through 30 or more roses, conclusions can be made:
1. Producers in Provence have fine-tuned rose and American producers are far behind. Okay, that's a generalization with exceptions. But, Provence rose is delicate, faint in color, well balanced and fresh. We've tasted our share of American roses that are heavy, dark in color and fruit bombs without class.
2. Grenache is king but syrah is queen. Grenache is such the perfect grape variety for rose because it has lively fruit character, strawberry notes and simplicity. Similarly, syrah grown in hot Provence adds another dimension with a dash of citrus and occasional spice. There is even minerality in Provence roses.
3. The best rose is simple and light. Why do producers muck up rose by trying to make it complex and ladened with fruit? Even the spectacular roses of Domaine Ott are delicate. They make you think, dance on the tongue and refresh.
4. You don't have to spend an arm and a leg for good rose. Okay, Domaine Ott hovers near $50, but the majority of rose ranges between $12 and $18. Whether it be from Spain or France, rose at this price level is one of the best deals in wine.
5. Rose is made to party. People love its color and its refreshing quality in the summer. It graces a table and honors the hostess.
For a list of some recent roses I have tried, see the "Wine Recommendations" page.
ANGEL IN A BOTTLE -- I was recently delighted to find Whispering Angel on a restaurant's wine-by-the-glass list. What a treat. The rose has been a phenomenal success since it was introduced 10 years ago by Sacha Lichine who had purchased Chateau d'Esclans in Provence in 2006.
Lichine partnered with Patrick Leon, a former winemaker at Lafite-Rothschild to make a top-shelf, dry roseAt $25 a bottle, it is more expensive than most Provence roses, but achieves Lichine's goal of making a respectable rose that even wine collectors will like. It is as good as the roses from Domaine Ott and Tempier.
So pale in color that you might mistake it for a white wine, it has the delicate red berry notes Provence is known for. Distributed in 102 countries, the wine is flying off the shelves even though production is nearly a half-million cases.
If you like rose, you need to spoil yourself with a bottle of Whispering Angel. Even at $22 a bottle, it's still a lot less than French champagne and most Bordeaux.
COOPER'S HAWK PHENOMENON -- I've been to many winery/restaurants over the years. No matter where they are -- Michigan, California, Virginia -- they usually disappoint. Only Domaine Chandon impressed me for both the wine and the food. So, I had my doubts about Cooper's Hawk Winery and Restaurants when I recently visited it in Naples, FL. Could a restaurant that sold only bulk wine shipped from Illinois really succeed?
It is succeeding. On an off-season Tuesday night, it was packed -- the bar was teeming with millennials who have made this a club and tables were ringed with single women and retirees. Every table had wine.
Cooper's Hawk is the brainchild of 40-year-old CEO and founder Tim McEnery, who launched his first restaurant/winery in 2005 in his hometown of Orland Park, Ill. Today, he has 10 restaurants, including one in Annapolis, and he's reportedly grossing more than $100 million a year.
One would think that not a lot of thought goes into the wine -- grapes are surplus from California, the Northwest, New York and Michigan, then shipped already fermented to Cooper's Hawk's blending facility. McEnery and his Canadian winemaker, Rob Warren, doesn't care much about terroir or origin, but neither do they care about vintage -- wines are blended from multiple vintages. Instead, they concentrate on offering an exclusive product in a club-like atmosphere and providing a service experience.
Serious wine drinkers are likely to cringe at the thought of drinking such wine, but they aren't McEnery's target. Most of the customers I spoke to were just enjoying the wine and could care less about it's origin or makeup. The din in this cavernous dining room exposed the frivolity of the night.
I tasted four wines -- sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot -- and can say that all of them were decent and well-made. They have generic characteristics and little complexity, but I've tasted worse from other producers.
The restaurant has all the gimmicks to make the experience seem special, including an obscene decanting device that towers over the tables. Gravity-fed, it aerates wine through a filter. A waitstaff told me the filter is to catch sediments -- from a wine that is probably a few weeks old? It was a bunch of voodoo, if you ask me.
By the way, the heavy portions of food from an extensive menu is decent too.
WINE ON THE MOVE -- I knew moving my wine collection from Maryland to Florida was going to be a challenge, but in the end it was more than I bargained for. It might have been easier to sell or give away the life-long collection. But I just couldn't forget the years of preserving this wine for personal consumption in my retirement years.
Perhaps you can learn a lesson here.
There were 44 cases of wine to move. Except for costly specialty movers, there are no commercial choices. Refrigerated trucks -- if you can get one -- are very expensive to rent. They even include an hourly charge for how often the cooling unit operates. Moving the collection myself seemed to be the cheapest and best solution.
Renting a truck or a trailer was out -- no refrigeration in the hot, two-day drive to Florida. Cargo vans didn't distribute air-conditioning well to the back, so the choice was a big Chevy Suburban. The maximum weight capacity was around 4,500 pounds and a case weighs roughly 40 pounds. I stuffed about 33 wood and cardboard cases in back, cranked up the AC and drove to Florida. I had to stop one night, but the temperature didn't get above 70 degrees.
I'm living in a rental condo until my house is being built. When I got to Naples, I stored the wine in temperature-controlled wine lockers. Because of Naples' demographics, there are four wine storage lockers. You'd be lucky to find one in your community, so I was lucky to be moving to the right community.
I was still left with 11 cases to move, and they will join me on my final trip there.
However much money I saved, moving wine has not been cheap. The car rental was $400 plus fuel. Storage for three months will be another $400. Building a new wine cellar in my home will cost me about $5,000.
A GEM FROM LANGUEDOC -- When most wine enthusiasts think of French wine, they think of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Maybe champagne and Alsace eventually come to mind, but rarely do any of us talk about the Languedoc region in southern France. However, there are more exciting red wines with unique qualities coming from this undervalued region of France. Make it a point to try these wines soon – they are great values.
Because there are fewer wine traditions and less history here, winemakers can experiment with grape varieties and wine-making techniques. Most of the red grapes grown here are Grenache, carignan, syrah and mourvedre -- Rhone varietals that need the copious sunshine that southern France provides.
For many years the region was known only for its inferior bulk wine, but today winemakers are producing serious wine at great prices.
I recently pulled from my cellar the 2010 Domaine Le Clos du Serres La Blaca and I probably should have waited a couple more years. It still had the gritty tannins I remember when I bought it. At $20 a bottle, it was a steal. Very dense with blackberry and black olive flavors, violet aromas and excellent structure.
The wine reminded me to not forget the Languedoc for great values.
TASTING ROOM SALES -- A recent Silicon Valley Bank survey of nearly 1,000 wineries found that direct-to-consumer business accounts for nearly 74 percent of wine sales for those that produce fewer than 2,500 cases a year.
For many small wineries, national distribution is impossible. Not only do distributors decline to mess with them, there isn't enough wine to go around. So, most of it is sold through their wine clubs or directly from their tasting rooms.
I was surprised to see in the bank's report that the average purchase in a Napa Valley tasting room was $246; in Sonoma it was $123. The number drops off in the Northwest -- $77 in Oregon and $62 in Washington State.
The report found that about 6 percent of a winery's visitors become wine club members, which seems low to me. More and more people in my circle are joining clubs as states relax their laws regard out-of-state shipment of alcoholic beverages.
I joined one wine club in my life -- St. Innocent in Oregon --and although I enjoyed getting their spectacular pinot noirs every year, I dropped out in just a couple of years. My cellar needed more variety and I had moved on. Like me, most people join a club after having a good experience in a tasting room.
Several months ago I met a winemaker who sold only $200 cabernet sauvignons from Napa Valley. He sold his small production directly to consumers and thus saved a bundle of money. Without a cut for wholesalers and retailers, all profits go directly in his pocket. That what lenders like Silicon Valley Bank like to see -- healthy profits.
CHLOE WINES MAKE AN IMPRESSION -- i had dinner recently with Georgetta Dane, the winemaker for Big House and now The Chloe Wine Collection. You may remember Big House from the Bonny Doon portfolio. Owner Randall Grahm sold the Big House brand to The Wine Group.
Dane is Romanian-born and came to the United States on a lark in the late 1990s -- her husband and four buddies applied for an immigration lottery after consuming a few beers. He won and took Georgetta and their newborn son to California. Neither spoke any English, but managed to find jobs at Kendall-Jackson.
Georgetta eventually landed with the Wine Group and is now focused on the Chloe brand.
"Chloe" is as popular for dogs as it is girls, but it also is a marketing tool for the wine's primary audience: millennial women. A bow tie on the label and wines associated with celebration and fun -- prosecco, pinot grigio and rose -- make it a hit at female socials.
I liked the prosecco because Dane reduced the sugar content and the pinot grigio because of a tantalizing mineral thread and balanced acidity.
These wines should be easy to find and are rightly priced between $12 and $15. And you don't have to be a female to enjoy them
BOXED INTO A CORNER? -- At a recent neighborhood tasting, I challenged guests to declare which wine they liked the most: a $5 bottle or a $48 bottle of cabernet sauvignon. Both wines were disguised in carafes.
I love these challenges -- not because I want to embarrass anyone, but because taking away labels and price tags gets people to concentrate their palates on the wines. And, I wasn't challenging them to ID the expensive wine -- they didn't even know the cost difference. I just wanted them to tell me which wine they liked.
And, they liked the cheap wine -- a Vin Vault cabernet that costs $20 for 3 liters (4 regular, 750 ml bottles). They knew the other wine -- a beautiful, brawny Priest Ranch cab -- was expensive. But, in the end, it was too tannic and mouth-puckering for them to enjoy with the appetizers.
Frankly, I loved the Priest Ranch and had no use for the $5 plonk. But the moment made me realize that most people don't want full-body wines and prefer to sip on something simple. In an hour, the cheap wine was gone and about a glass remained of the Priest Ranch. I happily drank it.
Box wines have come a long way since Franzia introduced them years ago. The French and Italians have been enjoying them unapologetically for years. In fact, Le Petite Frog and French Rabbit make decent versions.
I guess I'm just out of touch.
SOTER KNOWS HOW TO AGE -- Ten years ago I visited with Tony Soter at his Carneros winery, Etude. Alongside the top of several stainless steel fermenting tanks, we tasted through his current lineup of extraordinary pinot noirs and a barrel sample of his single-vineyard pinot noir. It was the barrel sample -- Deer Park -- that most impressed me. So when it was finally released, I quickly bought a few bottles -- expensive at nearly $70 apiece.
Just this week, I opened my last one. It was crazy to have cellared a pinot noir this long, but I took a chance on the last bottle because the pinot noir was so dense at the start. Alas, the fruit had faded, but not the memory of that great day in Carneros.
Shortly after my visit, Soter announced that he had sold Etude to Beringer Blass. Even more surprising, he was leaving California to establish a wine facility in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where he had owned property since 1997. Soter is a native of Portland..
Pinot noir was still his favorite grape variety, but it would be in Oregon where he would take it to another level. Worn out by remaining a consultant with Etude, Soter quit that job in 1999 and devoted full-time to his family and Soter Vineyards.
Soter is an interesting guy. Unlike his winemaking bretheren, he never received formal wine tasting at places at the University of California at Davis. Yet he became a valuable consultant to wineries like Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Chappellet, Shafer and Araujo. He launched Etude in 1980.