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Finding aged burgundies at the right price

(November 22, 2017)


Some readers might consider the phrases “reasonably priced” and "burgundy" an oxymoron. Add “aged burgundy” and “premier cru” to the mix and many of you would melt into laughter.  

We were of the same thought of mind until we came across a Domaine Menand Pere et Fils Mercurey 1er Cru 2005 that was available for $45. The Menard Mercurey exhibited complex, aged burgundy characteristics of ripe cherry, mushrooms and a distinct earthiness. Drinking beautifully now,  this red wine still had plenty of life.  

Presented by Tom Cox of Siema Wines, a wholesaler in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., we were amazed by the availability, price and quality of this 12-year-old burgundy.  

Cox said that this importer, Exclusive Wine Imports of Alexandria, Va., could source other aged burgundy at favorable prices and, oh by the way, would we like to taste them? 

He arranged a tasting with Jim Ungerleider to taste some of the limited production estate wines in their portfolio. Jim and Stephan Murray-Sykes founded Exclusive Wine exports in 2007, with Stephan sourcing the wines in Burgundy where he has lived and served on many professional tasting panels over the past 20 years.  

Exclusive Wine Imports originally sourced wines from Burgundy, and according to Jim, “sourced winemakers who didn’t have a presence in the U.S.” They now import between 6,000 to 8,000 cases per year from all over France.  

Ungerleider said many of their older burgundies are part of the original stocks of Burgundy imported in 2007 immediately before the economic calamity of 2008-2009 when luxury wine-buying ground to a halt. Instead of selling them off at fire-sale prices, they kept them because “they’re only going to get better, and in any event we can drink them." 

Among the white burgundies, we especially enjoyed the Domaine Feuillat-Juillot, Montagny 1er Cru Les Coeres 2010 ($38). This 7-year-old white wine is just beginning to develop the honey and caramel notes of its next stage of development. Nice minerality and good acidity make this wine a very attractive package.  

Two red wines from the somewhat overlooked 2006 vintage proved quite different. The Bertrand Machard de Gramont, Nuit-Saint-Georges Les Vallerots 2006 ($79), is from a 1.2-acre vineyard that yields only two tons per acre. This wine was somewhat reticent with wild cherry notes just beginning to emerge.  

The Bertrand Machard de Gramont, Nuits-Saint-Georges aux Allots ($79) was more evolved, showing well now. Deep ripe cherry notes are readily apparent in this delicious example, but this wine is still in its youth and will do nothing but continue to develop complexity. 

We also tasted two Pommard vintages from Albert Boillot’s 1er Cru En Largilliere vineyard that were a bit more expensive at $82 per bottle. The 2006 was still showing pretty firm tannins and dried cherry fruit notes, and needs a bit more time for this lesser vintage. The 2005, a much riper vintage, exhibited more mature cherry fruit, and blossomed in the glass after 10 minutes. Both of these wines will evolve beneficially for at least 10 more years but we give the edge to the 2005.    

Many choices for Thanksgiving wines

(November 13, 2017)


There may never be a time when we have looked forward to Thanksgiving as much as this year. Perhaps it's because of the spate of natural disasters – fires, floods and hurricanes – or the mass shootings in Nevada and Texas that send us searching for an oasis where we can be surrounded only by family and friends. This is the holiday to turn off the television and instead turn to each other for support and love. 

The holiday was actually created in 1623 to celebrate the end of a drought that for years had damaged the crops. Although George Washington signed a proclamation declaring Thanksgiving as a time to celebrate the end of the war of independence, it was President Franklin Roosevelt who in 1941 declared it would happen on the fourth Thursday of every November. 

Because it is such an American holiday to celebrate all that is good, we like to mark it with a traditional feast of turkey and all the trimmings. It is also an occasion to mark the holiday with a nice bottle of all-American wine.  

If you want to be patriotic, zinfandel is as all-American as Thanksgiving. It is a grape brought to us by Italian immigrants and today zinfandel is grown exclusively in the United States. Zinfandel has a fruity berry character that marries well with turkey and the classic side dishes.  

But it's not the only red grape to consider. A fruity syrah or grenache is a good match and pinot noirs are light enough to complement the simple flavors of turkey. If lamb or beef are your choices, you can consider Bordeaux or cabernet sauvignon. 

For whites, we like textured chardonnays that aren't over oaked. Turkey is a fairly neutral meat, so you don't want to overwhelm it with a strongly flavored wine.  

We like to offer both red and white choices to our dinner guests and add a champagne when they arrive. Here are some all-American wines to consider for your holiday dinner: 


  • J Vineyards Brut Rosé ($45). If you really want to get your celebration off on the right foot, the J rosé is our recommendation. We thoroughly enjoyed this sparkling wine from the Russian River Valley. Rich and lively, it has raspberry, strawberry and citrus notes. It is a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. 

  • Gloria Ferrer Anniversary Cuvee 2010 ($40). The original Sonoma County sparkling wine house has a winner on its hands with this special bottling from 14 separately fermented lots of chardonnay and pinot noir. The wine fermented in the bottle for 5 ½ years before disgorgement. Ripe pear aromas and peach and black cherry flavors with a dash of ginger. 

  • Mumm Napa Brut Rosé ($24). Made mostly from pinot noir grapes, this coral-colored sparkling wine will excite the palate. It has cherry and strawberry flavors and will match turkey and salmon nicely. 


  • Dry Creek Vineyard Mendocino County Old Vine Zinfandel 2014 ($32). Blended with a good dose of petite sirah and a little carignan, this zinfandel has depth and rich plum and blackberry aromas, cherry and raspberry flavors with a dose of spice and cocoa.  

  • Oak Farm Lodi Zinfandel 2015 ($24). A solid performance from the hot Lodi region, this full-body wine surpasses its price in quality. Long finish, jammy red berry fruit flavors and soft tannins. 

  • Peachy Canyon Westside Paso Robles 2015 ($22). Tight nose, concentrated raspberry and blackberry fruit flavors with a dash of allspice and clove. 

  • Talbott Vineyards Kali Hart Pinot Noir 2015 ($26). Reasonably priced, this elegant pinot noir can be served to a crowd. Its cherry and cranberry flavors, softness and medium body won't overwhelm the turkey. 

  • Qupé Central Coast Syrah 2013 ($20). Very spicy with fresh acidity and sweet strawberry flavors. Some grenache, mourvedre and tempranillo is added to give the wine a broader palate.  


  • Scott Family Estate Chardonnay 2016 ($25). From the Arroyo Seco AVA of the Central Coast, this mellow chardonnay showcases the Dijon clones that provide a lush, oaky chardonnay with pear and citrus notes to marry beautifully with turkey. 

  • Amici Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($25). Whether it be an aperitif before dinner or a wine at dinner, this versatile sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley has it all. There is enough complexity and richness to pair it with turkey, gravy and all the fixings. Vibrant acidity is also a nice foil to vegetables and cranberries. Tropical fruit flavors and a good dose of spice and mineral. 

  • Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($18). Very fresh and vibrant, this racy New Zealand sauvignon blanc delivers. Good acidity cuts through heavily seasoned foods and refreshes the palate. 

  • Concannon Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 ($20). We liked the creamy texture in this balanced chardonnay from Monterey County. Lemon/lime aromas give way to peach and tropical fruit flavors. Excellent value. 

  • Dierberg Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay 2014 ($32). A very distinctive chardonnay with fennel, lime and lychee notes on top of a lush tropical fruit palate. Crisp acidity makes it a good food wine too. 

  • FEL Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley Chardonnay 2015 ($48).  We tasted this wine alongside an oaked-up chardonnay from the same region and was stunned to witness how much better it did with food. This single-vineyard treat is well balanced yet still rich, aromatic and layered with pear and quince notes. Good acidity. 

  • Frank Family Vineyards Carneros Chardonnay 2015 ($35).  The cooling fog from San Pablo Bay has a big influence on this delicious, well-balanced chardonnay from Carneros. Good depth with apple and citrus notes and a hint of butterscotch and almond. 

Californians -- and us -- heal from fires

(November 8, 2017)


It’s been three weeks since devastating fires swept through California wine country, yet only now is the impact to the wine industry being truly defined. We know for a fact that 42 people lost their lives in the Oct. 8 fires that swept through five counties, including Napa and Sonoma. And, more than 8,400 residential and commercial structures were destroyed.  

We can’t lose sight of the human tragedy that cost lives and catastrophic financial loss, so to even write about anything else is difficult. We have many friends and associates who told us of fleeing for their lives only to return to devastation. 

Still, the fires beg the question: what will become of the wine from the 2017 harvest? 

The initial stories of widespread damage were exaggerated. Although reports are still coming in, we know that at least 27 wineries suffered significant damage – that’s out of 1,900 wineries and cellars in just Napa and Sonoma counties. Most notably Signorello, Frey Vineyards, Gundlach-Bundschu, Jarvis Estate and Paradise Ridge  – lost winemaking facilities, tasting rooms and/or vineyards.   

Put into perspective, according to University of California Davis’ Agricultural Issues Center, Napa and Sonoma counties account for less than 1 percent of the region’s winemaking capacities. The Central Valley, untouched by fire, produces 70 percent of California’s wine grapes. 

Most significantly, 90 percent of the grapes in the impacted area had been picked when the fires struck. What remained, however, was most of the prized cabernet sauvignon because it is the last variety to fully ripen. The producers who make those coveted, expensive cult cabernets will be the most severely impacted. UC economists predict a $66 bottle will cost $100, which doesn't impact most people who buy wines ranging on average from $9 to $15. 

With that established, there are still some daunting facts that expose the California wine industry to challenges in the next few years.  

First, about those cabernet sauvignons we all love and collect... 

Because of their moisture content of grapes and vines that are still green, vineyards don’t burn well. Firefighters said they even counted on the vineyards to block some of the spreading fires. Faring worse in the agricultural industry was the cannabis crop – seven marijuana farms were destroyed by fires, making the event the worst year for marijuana production. So, drink up but don't light up. 

Cabernet sauvignon skins are rather thick and thus more impervious to smoke. However, the degree of “smoke taint,” as it is commonly known, won’t be known until tests can be done on the fermented grape juice. Even then, producers have means to mitigate the ashy flavor found in tainted wines. However, filtration can only lessen the damaging taint. We remember tasting smoke-tainted wines that were produced after the 2008 fires and they weren’t pretty. 

Most likely, top producers will choose not to vinify any cabernet sauvignon tainted by smoke. 

Second, white wines probably were fermenting happily in heavy stainless-steel tanks. However, those wines fermenting in wood barrels surrounded by rising heat may not have fared so well. Wines need to ferment in cool temperatures. 

Can small producers afford to dump tainted wine – white or red? Will larger producers of inexpensive wines release substandard products in a "fire sale" and hope consumers won’t notice? Wine from the 2017 vintage will be highly scrutinized and their quality remains to be seen. 

But damage to the 2017 vintage is by far the least of California’s problems. Insurance will cover a lot of the financial loss. Not covered will be the loss to tourism. Visitors have been canceling hotel reservations and wedding ceremonies in droves.  Last year, Napa Valley alone attracted 3.5 million visitors who spent an average $402 a day, accounting for an economic impact of $13 billion in Napa County and $13.4 billion in Sonoma County. A lot of jobs will be lost if the tourists don’t return. 

No doubt the shortage of California wine from the state’s top regions will result in price increases for what is saved. This comes on top of reports from Europe that wine production – the worst in 50 years -- is expected to drop 14 percent over last year, due mostly to widespread frost and hail damage. Italy alone is expecting a 21 percent drop in volume.  Only in Oregon is wine production expected to increase. Those who collect those California wines that emerge unscathed will pay dearly for their prizes. 

If you want to support Californians suffering from this disaster, visit Napa, Sonoma or Mendocino counties soon. We doubt you’ll see the damage you expected and the wines from the 2016 and 2015 vintages are tasting great now.  

Here are some Sonoma and Napa wines to enjoy now: 

  • Frey Vineyard Sonoma Reserve Zinfandel 2015 ($20). One of the first to embrace organic and biodynamic farming, Frey continues to produce one of the best zinfandels in Dry Creek Valley. This one embodies varietal blackberry and raspberry flavors with hints of pepper and spice. 

  • Louis Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($38). You get a lot of fruit and depth for the money here. With a dash of petite sirah and petit verdot, this richly textured wine has a broad palate of flavors: blackberry, cassis, blueberry and plums and a good dose of licorice.  

  • Freemark Abbey Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2016 ($25). This is a delightful quaffable sauvignon blanc with ripe citrus and pear fruit and a soft round mouthfeel. A nice counter point to the New Zealand herbal/grapefruit style.   

  • Quilt Chardonnay Napa Valley 2015 ($36). This is a full throttle chardonnay on steroids. From the same winemaker Joe Wagner that brought us Meiomi pinot noir. Ripe tropical fruit nose and flavors with toasty oak elements in a delightful mélange. A terrific white wine for boldly flavored fish and chicken dishes, this wine will also do well all by itself. 

  • Amici Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014 ($50). This is a well-made, classic Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Exhibiting luscious berry and cherry nose and flavors, it is framed with cedar notes. Already showing well this wine can easily evolve for 5-10 years at least.                                                                      

Some inexpensive pinot noirs to consider

(October 31, 2017)


Pinot noir has always competed with cabernet sauvignon as the most noble grape in the world. While cabernet sauvignon is one of five grapes that goes into the best red wine of Bordeaux, pinot noir stands alone as the only grape that goes into red burgundies. It doesn’t rely on other grapes to give the wine color, flavor, complexity and acidity.

Pinot noir's exclusivity isn't the only challenge either. While the red varieties of Bordeaux are relatively easy to grow, pinot noir’s thin skins make it more susceptible to disease and is highly influenced by temperature and rain. Many producers have given up on the grape after suffering severe crop losses.

These difficulties influence prices; most great burgundies cost hundreds of dollars and even those made in California and Oregon can easily approach $100 -- all the more reason to appreciate an inexpensive pinot noir.

In recent weeks we have found several delicious pinot noirs for under $40. Although that may sound expensive for most of you, the truth is that these wines are moderately priced. They may not have the character and complexity of the more expensve pinot noirs, but they are delicious nonetheless.

Here are several we recommend:

·       La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2014 ($23).  The grapes were primarily  fermented in open-top tanks and ten punched down several times a day to give the wine intense, complex aromas and flavors. We like the earthy character of the wine and its effusive strawberry, cola flavors. Hints of chocolate and spice.

·       Hahn SLH Pinot Noir 2015 ($30). The initials represent the three vineyards – Smith, Lone Oak and Hook – in this tasty blend from Santa Lucia Highlands. Bright cherry character and a dash of mushrooms and spice.

·       Sanford Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2014 ($35). A blend of eight different clones, this reasonably priced pinot noir still expresses the AVA's fruit profile. Very understated.

·       J. Lohr Fog’s Reach Pinot Noir 2014 ($35).  Lohr extracts more fruit from his pinot noir than any California producer we know. With 1,300 acres of Arroyo Seco and Santa Lucia Highlands’ vineyards at its disposal, it can make consistently good pinot noir year to year. 

·       Cline Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2015 ($17). Cline Family Cellars has developed a well-earned reputation for its portfolio of value wines. Known first for its zinfandels, it has a pinot noir made from estate grown grapes in Sonoma Coast.  Pumped over during fermentation to extract color and flavor, the grapes have created a simple but balanced pinot noir with red berry flavors and nuances of vanillin oak.

·       Decoy Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2015 ($25).  Violet and strawberry aromas start off a succulent pinot noir that shows off cassis and ripe cherry flavors. Soft mouthfeel and long in the finish.

·       Jackson Estate Outland Ridge Pinot Noir 2014 ($32).  You can always count on Kendall-Jackson to deliver a balanced wine. This pinot noir from the Anderson Valley comes from vineyards that struggle through large volcanic rock. The result is intense strawberry and raspberry fruit flavors that linger on the palate.

·       Cambria Benchbreak Pinot Noir 2014 ($25). We loved this richly textured wine with extracted cherry and cranberry fruit flavors and hints of mushrooms and spice. Dark in color, it hints of blueberries on the nose. We bet you can’t stop at one glass. Great value.

·       Dreaming Tree California Pinot Noir 2015 ($15). By using grapes from all over California and not a specific vineyard, winemaker Sean McKenzie concentrates on just making a decent pinot noir for a decent price. With classic black cherry flavors and medium body, there is nothing complicated here.

·       Trinity Hill's Pinot Noir 2015 ($17). Using grapes from three cool-climate vineyards in Southern Hawke's Bay in New Zealand, the producer shows off an elegant, fruit-energized wine with a spice nose and earthy, raspberry flavors.

·       MacMurray Estate Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir 2014 ($43). This reserve from the Russian River Valley is a big step up from the producer’s uninspiring, regular pinot noir. The reserve is a beautiful wine is a more opulent wine with rich texture and layered flavors of cherries, boysenberries and cloves. 

·       Ron Rubin Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2016 ($25). This region benefits from morning fog and cool coastal breezes which cools the grapes and allows for longer hang time on the vine. That retains the acidity and allows grapes to fully mature. Red berry notes with a hint of vanilla.

·       Viansa Carneros Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 ($45). A decent price for a reserve pinot noir, this gem reflects the cherry and plum qualities in a Carneros wine, plus the hint of licorice we commonly find in this region's wines. 

·       WindVane Carneros Pinot Noir 2015 ($45). A relatively new wine from cava producer Freixenet USA, this pinot noir grapes gets two days of cold soaking to extract more color – Carneros isn't known for its naturally dark colors. Black cherry notes, a classic velvet mouthfeel and a dash of vanilla. 

·       Cultivate Pinot Noir 2014 ($28). Youthful raspberry and pomegranate flavors with a long, refreshing finish.

Pinot noir: you can taste the soil, say winemakers


(September 25, 2017)

There is probably no other grape variety that reflects its terroir more than pinot noir. Winemakers have a lot of tools to use in the winery to extract the most from the juice, but pinot noir is greatly influenced by the soil and weather -- a condition the French call, "gout de terroir" or taste of the earth. 

Pinot noir has more than 800 unique organic compounds, which help define a wine's aroma, color and flavor. Their dominance varies from one growing region to another. Burgundy pinot noir's have high acid but an enviable grace and texture. New Zealand pinot noirs are racy with lean, taut fruit. Oregon pinot noirs have higher alcohol and more extracted fruit. Of course, there are exceptions to every generality, but understanding the influence of soil and weather helps you determine your favorite pinot noir. 

With the growth of nursery-cultivated clones, pinot noir has been able to prosper as growers identify which clone does best in their particular soil and microclimate. But clones create a degree of sameness, which leaves the distinctive qualities of pinot noir to soil and weather. 

"We have some good examples of how site trumps clones," says Steve Fennell, winemaker and general manager of Sanford in Sta. Rita Hills, one of our favorite regions for pinot noir. 

A student of earth sciences, Fennell understands the impact of soil and weather. His two primary vineyards – the historic Sanford & Benedict and La Rinconada – offer the perfect contrast because the soil for the first is primarily clay and for the second it is shale. But both are blessed by cool, marine breezes that arrive at night and stay until mid-morning, then return by mid-afternoon. Cooling breezes are consistent to good pinot noir because they protect the grapes' thin skins from sunburn and allow for slow ripening. 

We asked several winemakers from our four favorite pinot noir AVAs in California to help us identify the unique characteristics that soil and climate bring to their wines.  


David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars stresses that Russian River Valley's climate has the most impact on pinot noir. Rising hot air creates a low pressure zone, which draws denser, cool air through the Petaluma Gap.  

"When we wake up during the growing season, it's often to fog at a temperature around 57 degrees. As the sun warms the region, the fog slowly burns off and the temperature rises. It's this daily diurnal temperature fluctuation – say 57 to 87 – that gives the Russian River Valley its unique characteristics – a combination of fresh, juicy acidity coupled with a charming richness." 

He argues pinots from cooler climes don't develop the valley's warm richness and pinots from hotter regions don't retain natural acidity as well. 

  • Ramey Cellars Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2014 ($50). An elegant, pretty wine, the Ramey has bright cherry flavors, long finish and a dash of spice. One of our favorites. 


The Anderson Valley is California's most northern fine wine-growing region in proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Ryan Hodgins, winemaker for FEL Vineyard says, "One of the outcomes of this is characteristically cold winters that push our growing season quite late and shift prime ripening time towards fall and autumn, as compared to late summer in other Californian regions. As a result, Anderson Valley pinot noir tends to be more acid-driven and lighter-bodied than pinot produced farther south. The fruit profile also tends to be a bit darker.”  

  • FEL Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2015  ($70). Cliff Lede of Lede Family Wines launched this brand in 2014 and it has been a hit with us ever since. The wine shows good but balanced acidity, black cherry flavors and a dash of spice. 


James Hall, winemaker for Patz & Hall, says that the Santa Lucia Highlands enjoys the attributes of both the Central and North Coasts because of its location. It's semi-arid climate allows for an early bud break and a late harvest while cooling fog from Monterey Bay slow the ripening. 

"The fruit character is brambly, slightly herbal with penetrating red fruits – a bit like raspberry leaf tea and cherry jam," he says. "There is a scale and density to the wines that is derived from the very cool nights and warm days, which cause thick skins to develop -- the source of rich body and aromatic intensity." 

  • Patz & Hall Pisoni Vineyard Sana Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2013 ($90). Super concentrated, full-throttle wine with bing cherry, red currant and cola notes with hints of chocolate and cloves.  


Tyler Thomas, winemaker for Dierberg, says he enjoys the expressive dark fruit profile of this region's pinot noirs.  

"While that in itself may not seem unusual for great wines, it's that the power of those aromatics often creates the expectation of largeness and richness in the palate.  And this is where Sta. Rita Hills shines: it actually delivers freshness, refinement, and precision with its texture. To me, this is the trademark of great pinot noir: large, perfumed aromatics, delivered on a fresh, delicate palate."  

Fennell of Sanford wines finds an earthy, savory profile in this appellation's pinot noirs. 

  •  Dierberg Sta. Rita Hills Drum Canyon Vineyard 2014 ($52).  This is elegant pinot noir with distinct acidity. Perfumy aromas are followed by intense black cherry flavors and a hint of spice and black pepper.  

  • Sanford Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($70). This extraordinary and well-balanced pinot noir has earthy, forest-floor aromas, mature cherry flavors, ripe tannins and a dash of spice. It's colossal in weight.We'll continue the discussion of this extraordinary grape variety next week.

Can wines in a can taste good? And, remembering BV

(October 11, 2017)


Let’s say you’re headed to a tailgating party before the big game and you want to pack some wine to go with the brats and wings. You pile a couple of bottles of cheap pinot grigio and zinfandel in a cooler that is already too heavy for one person to lug into the parking lot. 

Or, let’s just say that you wise up and pack a couple of cans of wine. Now, isn't that easier? But you hesitate: am I going to be embarrass to offer someone a can of chardonnay? 

No, especially if you’re a millennial. Don’t look now, but wine bottles are sharing the shelves with cans and boxes.  U.S. sales of wine from the can doubled in one year and has gone from $2 million in sales in 2012 to $14 million in 2016.

Maybe the experience of pouring wine from a can hasn't quite reached the dinner table or the restaurant, but it has become a convenient alternative to the 750ml bottle at tailgates, boating raft-ups, beaches, picnics, festivals, camping and alongside pools and decks.  

The advantages are numerous: 

  • Like beer, cans are easy to toss into a cooler. And they are lighter. 

  • It forces portion control. A can is about 2 glasses and maybe that’s all you want. There is no urgency to finish a bottle or even recork it. 

  • It can be taken into stadiums or pools where glass is prohibited. 

  • Not being exposed to light, cans can last for up to a year without fear of oxidation. 

But there are disadvantages too: 

  • Cans can be more expensive by the ounce. They need to be lined with polymer to prevent acidic wines from destroying the aluminum from within. 

  • Top producers aren’t using cans. Francis Ford Coppola puts his Sophia wines in cans and they are very good. But you haven’t yet seen other top producers break with tradition and risk their images. 

  • Drinking wine from a can through a straw can be intoxicating. Beer is only 4 percent alcohol and wine is around 13 percent. Drinking wine just as fast as a soda will get you into trouble.  

Canned wines are a good fit for the right occasions, but they can be a bit sweet and ripe. Experiment before you offer them to a crowd. 

Here are some we tasted: 

  • Pam’s Unoaked Chardonnay ($4 for one 187ml can). Made by Ron Rubin of Ron Rubin Winery in Sonoma County,  the unoaked chardonnay is very pleasant with good acidity and varietal apple flavors. There is also a Ron’s Red from this collection that appears to be a varied blend of red grapes. 

  • Tangent Rosé 2016 ($48 for six 375ml cans). If there is ever a perfect wine for a can, it’s rosé. Meant to be an unassuming aperitif, rosé can be easily chilled and sipped. Tangent is from the Edna Valley and is a blend of albarino, viognier, pinot noir, syrah and grenache. 

  • Great Oregon Wine Country Pinot Noir ($13 for four 6.3-oz. cans). These are smaller cans than most others, but maybe that’s good. Light and fruity, it’s a good wine to chill. This company also cans a decent pinot grigio. 

  • Underwood Rosé ($28 for four 375ml cans) The Union Wine Co. has been putting wine in a can for several years and has become easy to find. It’s pinot noir is a hit, but we liked this easy-drinking rosé. 

  • Alloy Wine Works Pinot Noir ($18 for three 375ml cans). Ripe cherry flavors and easy to quaff chilled. 


Wineries often come and go, but there are many who have been with us for generations. One such winery we are happy to see still around is Beaulieu Vineyard.  

We were introduced to this Napa Valley icon when we first started to write our column. Back in the 1980s we were buying its classic Rutherford cabernet sauvignon for about $14 and then swooned over its Georges de Latour reserve cabernet sauvignon and its silky pinot noirs influenced by winemaker and consultant Andre Tchelistcheff. 

BV, as it is more commonly known, has gone through several ownership changes since we first started reviewing these wines. Since 2016 it has been owned by Treasury Wine Estates. 

We revisited two of its signature wines and were pleased to see the quality of the wine match the quality of its vineyard grape source. 

All our fond memories of the Beaulieu Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon burst from the glass with the aromatic 2014. You won't find a better, full-bodied Napa Valley cabernet for $33.  

 Like we remember, this cabernet sauvignon has layers of fruit due in part to the three appellations that supply the grapes: BV Rutherford, Calistoga and St. Helena.  The nose is laced with violets, mocha, plum and blackberry while the palate adds some cherry and allspice notes.  

Although considerably more expensive at $65, the 2013 BV Reserve Tapestry is a dynamite blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, malbec and cabernet franc. Grapes from reserve lots are vinified separately and aged in small oak barrels for 21 months. Fruit forward in style and surprisingly soft in texture, it offers generous plum, cherry and cassis flavors with hints of cedar and tobacco. 

Zinfandel: America's mostly-American grape

(October 4, 2017)


Zinfandel is often called “America’s grape” because, well, we like to have something we call our own. Never mind that all grapes, like many Americans, have Europeans origins. Nothing started in this country without some seed from much older nations. Nevertheless, zinfandel is as close as we’ll ever get to having our own grape. 

For years, viticulture researchers believe zinfandel was a copy of primitivo, an ancient grape of Italy. Then, it was considered a descendant of plavac mali, a grape variety of Croatia. It wasn’t until DNA was applied by geneticists in 2001, that zinfandel was formally allied with the Croatian grape crljenak kastelanski. Try to pronounce that after a couple of glasses of crljenak kastelanski. 

One of the first grapes to be planted in this country by immigrants, zinfandel has the history in this country to call it ours and particularly because no one else is growing it.  It got us through Prohibition and it was a bread-winner for Italian immigrants, including Ernest and Julio Gallo, Robert Mondavi and countless other pioneers. Zinfandel is now the third leading grape variety grown in California. 

This is a good time of the year when many of us are raking leaves and getting in late-season grilling that zinfandel becomes the perfect libation. We like to take it to tailgate celebrations because its zesty, jammy flavors match up well with kielbasa, chicken wings and other typical football fare.  Put this alongside barbecue sauces and you’ll be cheering for more than the local team. 

Zinfandel tends to ripen late on the vine and consequently develops more alcohol. However, producers have moderated the alcohol from a once lofty 16 percent or more to a reasonable 15 percent. Their wines are more approachable and less likely to get you into trouble.  

In the right hands, zinfandel can be made to impress. Those made by Turley and Ridge, for instance, are 

concentrated and long-lived. Rosenblum, a zinfandel leader, makes nearly a dozen different zinfandels from vineyards ranging from Mendocino to Paso Robles.  Ravenswood, too, makes a variety of extraordinary zinfandels that we enjoy year after year. Cline and Dry Creek Vineyards also concentrate on zinfandel. 

Smaller producers such as Quivira, Hendry, and Biale make specially crafted and unique zinfandels. 

Zinfandel made in not regions like Lodi and Amador get a lot of sun and thus favor a riper character with flavors of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and cherries. Spice is often prevalent too. The fruit can be sweet or candied. The more inexpensive versions are simple, but the more expensive zinfandels are concentrated and packed with dense fruit and tannins. One region that produces some of the best and most balanced zinfandels is Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley.  

Here are some delicious California zinfandels to make you feel loyal to "our" grape: 

  • Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut Zinfandel 2014 ($27). Dry Creek Valley plays host to some of the best zinfandel vineyards in Sonoma County. We loved the jammy, fruit-forward flavors and structure of this boisterous gem. Petite sirah accounts for 14 percent of the blend. 

  • Cline Family Cellars Old Vine Zinfandel 2015 ($11). The Lodi vines for these grapes date back 70 years and the wine represents one of the many great deals from this iconic producer who is celebrating its 35th anniversary. The source for most of its wines, the Petaluma Gap, is now its own AVA. Lots of forward raspberry and blackberry flavors. It nails the delicious meter and is a great value. 

  • Bella Winery Lily Hill Estate Zinfandel 2014 ($40). From the Dry Creek Valley, this delicious single-vineyard wine has big floral aromatics and dark fruit flavors. Available only through its website. 

  • The Federalist Zinfandel 2014 ($20). Aged in bourbon barrels, this jammy zinfandel takes on a unique profile with a lot of vanilla to add to the raspberry, blackberry and pepper flavors. The tannins are soft, thanks to these barrels, and the color is dark purple. 

  • Carnivor Zinfandel 2015 ($15). As the name implies, this wine is for meat lovers. Bold, full-bodied and packed with blackberry, plum flavors with a dash of chocolate and vanilla. 

  • Zin-Phomaniac Zinfandel 2015 ($15). Hey, we just like the name and an exotic label. From Lodi, it has classic varietal fruit character: raspberry aromas, ripe plum and blueberry flavors with hints of sweet vanilla and cedar. 

  • Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel 2014 ($18). Blended with petit sirah, carignane and other black grape varieties, the Ravenswood Old Vine is a sumptuous delight. It isn't complicated, but it is juicy with jammy blackberry and raspberry notes. 


Where is the Central Coast?


(September 27, 2017)

More and more wine consumers are reading "Central Coast" on wine labels as the source of grapes in the bottle. Our impression is that most consumers are unsure of where the Central Coast is located in California. For that matter, where is the North Coast of California? These regions are so broad, they often mean so little. 

Do not to confuse the Central Coast with the huge 450-mile-long fertile Central Valley which dominates the landscape of central California, and lies west and inland of the Central Coast. The Central Valley produces more than 50 percent of the fruits, nuts and vegetables in the United States.  

But the Central Coast is the region hugging the Pacific coast, stretching south of San Francisco roughly 350 miles to Santa Barbara. It encompasses a wide range of growing conditions from the cooler climate Monterey region to the much warmer region in Paso Robles. Most often the cooler climate areas are open to the frigid air that migrates inland off of the cool Pacific Ocean waters every evening, and ebb as the morning fog burns off during the day. 

 Chardonnay is the most commonly planted grape, which reflects the abundance of cooler climate terroirs in the region. 

Philip Hahn of Hahn Vineyards praises the opportunities in the region to grow grapes in different climactic areas for blending within the Central Coast region. For example cooler climate grapes can be blended with the same or other varietal from warmer regions to result in more interest and complexity in the finished wine.  

So what’s a consumer to expect from wines labeled Central Coast? At a minimum Central Coast appellations, even the warmer ones such as Paso Robles, will reflect the maritime influence of the cool Pacific Ocean with significant diurnal temperature swings, warm or hot days and cool evenings. Areas such as Monterey will have lower overall daytime temperatures, as well as cool evenings, and grapes will take longer to mature on the vine. Overall consumers can expect Central Coast grapes to produce wines that reflect ripe fruit flavors and appropriate alcohol levels due to warm daytime temperatures that promote sugar production in grapes. At the same time cool nighttime temperatures promote acid preservation in the ripened grapes to preserve freshness and palate-cleansing qualities in the finished wine. 

One widely available Central Coast winery to look for is Fess Parker in Los Olivos. Look for its pinot noir and chardonnay. Yes this is the same Fess Parker who played Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone in the 1960s and 70s . 

Another Central Coast wine we like is J. Lohr Winery in Paso Robles, which produces notable cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay 

 Cambria Winery in Santa Maria creates world-class pinot noir and chardonnay. Justin Winery in Paso Robles is noted for their outstanding cabernet sauvignon, and Hahn Vineyards in Monterey crafts well priced pinot noir and chardonnay. 

These are but a few of the hundreds of wineries in the Central Coast, many of which merit consideration for their table wines. 

Just in case you're wondering, the North Coast wine growing region mentioned at the beginning of this column is defined as the region north of San Francisco encompassing Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Mendocino County, Lake County, Solano County, and Los Carneros. It is home to half of California’s wineries, and some of its most prestigious properties. 

Don't overlook Alsace

(September 20, 2017)


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

Not even the French from Burgundy, Bordeaux and Provence understand Alsatians. Their Alemannian dialect is still spoken in Germany, but nowhere else in France. When the Roman empire fell, the region became part of Germany and wasn't conquered by the French until 1639. The tug-of-war over this region has left Alsace struggling for honor like a litter's runt. Yet to a visitor Alsace is one of France's most beautiful and humble regions. 

One would think that its residents would suffer an inferiority complex with such history. But that's hardly the case. They are very proud of their heritage, their endurance and their wines. 

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

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

Much of Alsace’s struggle can be attributed to its fickle approach to residual sugar. For years, its most popular wines, including those from Zind-Humbrecht, were ladened with sugar because such wines fared better among American critics. However, this trend has changed in recent years and Alsace wines, in general, are more balanced with good acidity and less residual sugar. Zind-Humbrecht even provides a residual sugar count on its labels. 

There are those producers who insist on letting nature takes its course with intervention, so if the sugar doesn’t entirely ferment one year, they don’t add any more yeast to make it happen. 

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

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

Here are some recently tasted Alsace wines: 

  • Trimbach Riesling 2014 ($20). Very fresh pear and lemon flavors with tangy acidity, a hint of ginger, rich mouthfeel and long, intense finish. A good value. 

  • Famile Hugel Classic Riesling 2014 ($22). A broad palate of peach and green apple flavors, a dash of minerality and a touch of herbs, this is a dry, delightful representation of Alsace riesling. 

  • Kuentz-Bas Alsace Blanc 2014 ($18). I loved this wine for its refreshing quality. A blend of sylvaner, auxerrois and muscat grapes, it has deceiving depth, bright acidity, floral aromatics, peach flavors and a dash of minerality. 

  • Domaine Albert Boxler Pinot Blanc 2013 ($31). Orange, apricot and petrol notes dominate this high-acidity wine. 

  • Domaine Ostertag "Fronholz" Muscat 2009 ($44). This special treat falls heavy on the palate but the weight is offset by tantalizing honey and stone fruit flavors. Fermented in small barriques. 

  • Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Rieslng Grand Cru Rangen de Thann "Clos St. Urbain" 2005 ($82). Wow, what a mouthful. This small-production riesling is from one of the most reputable grand cru vineyards in Alsace. Bold and dense in structure, it oozes peach and melon flavors, an extraordinarily long finish and a powerful balance of acidity and plumpness.  

Pinot gris, pinot blanc, pinot grigio, pinot noir

(September 4, 2017)


With the proliferation of new wine brands from all over the world, it is not surprising to witness the growing confusion between pinot gris, pinot blanc and pinot grigio.  In truth, they all are mutations of pinot noir but different because how they are made and where they are grown.   

While pinot gris is often barrel-aged and thus more round, pinot grigio is usually made in stainless-steel tanks and thus more fresh and fruity. A pinot gris made in Alsace is more likely to be fruity and slightly sweet. That made in its home of northern Italy is dry and minerally.  The pinot grigio or pinot gris sold in California, Washington and Oregon seem to have less acidity and more apple and peach fruit flavors. They are drier than that made in Alsace, but heavier on the palate. Of course, these are generalizations but may help you understand why you like Italian pinot grigio but not an Washington pinot gris. 

Pinot grigio was actually born in Burgundy where it was known as pinot gris. It made its way to Italy only after passing through Switzerland. Today, it is Italy's highest-sold white wine. 

The other generalization we can make about this grape variety is that the cheaper versions – like Cavit sold in large format bottles – are sweet and without a lot of character. They are bulked produce in large stainless-steel tanks and have less natural acidity. Those aged in oak have more complexity and thus more expensive. 

If you enjoy this wine, you are better off to stick with bottles that sell for more than $15.  

Here are some versions we recently tasted: 

  • Marco Felluga Mongris Pinot Grigio 2014 ($20). Very floral, this full-bodied pinot grigio with apple flavors is a great representation of what kind of quality can come from a real pinot grigio from northern Italy. 

  • Tommasi Le Rosse Pinot Grigio 2015 ($17).  This is a terrific wine for pinot grigio devotees who want something different. It's the first pinot grigio rosé we have tasted and it’s a gem.  Rich and racy, it struts tropical fruit flavors and reasonable acidity. 

  • Alois Lageder Porer Pinot Grigio 2015 ($25). A solid performer year after year, this generous pinot grigio is a good sipping wine or one to pair with fruit and fowl. Soft mouthfeel with good acidity with stone fruit, spice flavors. 

  • Swanson Vineyards San Benito Pinot Grigio 2016 ($21).  This Napa Valley pinot grigio bursts with floral and citrus aromas, followed by stone fruit flavors.   

  • Terlato Fruili Pinot Grigio 2016 ($23). Terlato makes something special out of Italy's prized pinot grigio grape. It is more complex than most other pinot grigios with ripe peach and pear flavors and a crisp acidity. 

  • Nine Hats Pinot Gris 2016 ($15).  The pinot gris from Washington's Horse Heaven Hills AVA is well worth your time and dollar. This one is named after the renowned winemaking stars of Long Shadows Winery. It has generous floral aromas and stone fruit flavors. 

  • J Vineyards & Winery Pinot Gris 2016 ($20). The producer has preserved the freshness of this pinot gris with stainless-steel fermentation. Pineapple and peach aromas lead off flavors of ripe pear and lime. 

August 21, 2017

Luisa Ponzi returns to her roots


No one is going to dispute that modern viticulture developments have led to vast improvements in wine. Whether it how a vine’s canopy is managed or how the soil is treated, breakthroughs in farming generally have provided more consistent, drought- and insect-resistant vines. The result has led to better wines across the board. 

One significant breakthrough came in the 1950s when researchers identified clones that could be counted on to grow consistent, disease-free vines. A clone is a cutting or bud of a mother plant and is genetically identical. So, a cutting from an immensely successful vineyard planted in similar soil and climate can be expected to perform equally well.  Wine growers, then, would select a particular clone for its flavor profile, grape size, yield or tolerance to weather challenges. Prior to that, vines of various cuttings were indiscriminately planted side by side. 

Ponzi winemaker Luisa Ponzi

Ponzi winemaker Luisa Ponzi

Clonal selection has been most popular with pinot noir. Mono clones, such as Dijon 777, Dijon 113 and Pommard,  customarily planted separately in blocks across California and Oregon, have created some extraordinary wines over the last few decades. But the sameness of these cloned grapes has caused many winemakers to wonder if the wines lack the dimension that a random selection would better provide. Maybe, they wondered, earlier generations of grape growers had it right: randomness is good. 

One person who has embraced the old practice of random clonal plantings is Luisa Ponzi, a second-generation winemaker in Oregon’s pinot-noir-rich Willamette Valley.  In 1975, her father Dick Ponzi and fellow winemaker Dick Erath worked with Oregon State University to plant 22 pinot noir clones on a 2-acre plot. Both men were winemaking pioneers in the region, so the trial was a learning experience. 

The idea was simply to tag the vines and observe their development over several years. But it was a blend of these clones from this Abetina Vineyard that created some very interesting wines, Luisa recalls. 

When Luisa returned from her studies in Burgundy in 1993 to become Ponzi's winemaker, she had the opportunity to take the magic she found at Abetina a step further. Over the next two decades she became more familiar with the expression of individual clones, what rootstocks work best in her soils and how vine age was affecting the wines. She developed a planting technique she calls "clonal massale," in which a mix of more than 25 unique clones are planted randomly in a single block. Today, more than 30 acres of Ponzi wines are planted to clonal massale. 

The risk of such an undertaking is that the vines don’t behave the same -- they ripen at different times and with different levels of acidity, flavor, aromas and more. However, Luisa says the grapes complement each other and compensate for vintage variation.  The tradeoff is a pinot noir with more dimension and character than those made from selected clones. 

The clonal massale pinot noirs we tasted during a recent visit to Ponzi Vineyards showed dimension that comes from her innovation.  

The 2014 Ponzi Vineyards Avellana Pinot Noir is from a block of clonal massale planted  to heritage and Dijon clones. The Abetina pinot noir comes from the experimental 1975 Abetina Vineyard of heritage clones and the Ponzi Abetina 2 pinot noir uses fruit from a block that is identical to the original Abetina. The block is preserved on rootstock on the same soil and elevation as the original block. 

Dick and Nancy Ponzi planted their first vineyard in 1970 and their daughters – Luisa and Anna – have been carrying on ground-breaking innovation. All but the origin estate vineyard are planted within 5 miles of each other in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. The area is under review for its own AVA to be named after its soil, Laurelwood. 

One common theme that seems to run through the wines is balance. While some Oregon pinot noirs are thick and jammy, Ponzi wines are elegantly classic with mid-palate depth rather than forward fruit. This was particularly evident in the 2014 Ponzi Classico Pinot Noir ($43) and delivers well beyond its price. 

Here are our tastings notes of more of Ponzi’s incredible wines: 

  • Ponzi Vineyards Avellana Pinot Noir 2014 ($105). Only a couple of hundred cases are made of this exquisite, pretty pinot noir. More tannic than most pinot noirs, it is destined for greatness with concentrated black cherry and plum flavors and spicy aromas. 

  • Ponzi Vineyards Abetina Pinot Noir 2014 ($105).  Generous nutmeg and cinnamon aromas, black cherry flavors, fine tannins and a long finish make this a collectable wine for those with deep pockets. This is truly one of the extraordinary wines made in the Willamette Valley. 

  • Ponzi Vineyard Tavola Pinot Noir 2015 ($27). Using grapes from several appellations, this affordable, popular pinot noir delivers big-time flavors of red cherries, blueberries and a dash of chocolate.  Blended for early release, it has a more fruit-forward style and has become almost too popular to satisfy the demand, Luisa says. 

  • Ponzi Vineyard Pinot Noir Reserve 2014 ($65). Grapes from Ponzi’s Aurora and Avellana vineyards are joined by other sources to create a complex, rich pinot noir that we liked very much. Long finish. 

  • Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Gris 2016 ($19). Oregon is known for its pinot gris, but Ponzi has been making it since 1978. Trust us, this a wine you need to discover. Highly aromatic, it’s melon and stone fruit flavors presented with a touch of sweetness make for a great sipper or a wine to pair with barbecued chicken and fish. Ponzi also makes an old-vine pinot gris do die for, but available only through its club.  

  • Ponzi Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay 2014 ($40). Reasonably priced for a full-bodied chardonnay, this cuvee has a silky texture, balanced acidity, and oodles of tropical fruit and lemon meringue flavors with a hint of mineral.