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Frightening array of Halloween wines

(October 20, 2019)


We don’t what it is about Halloween that draws out the goblins in the wine industry. Perhaps it’s the devil in them or perhaps they see a brief opportunity to make a buck. But each year there are more and more wines with Halloween themes guaranteed to loosen up an adult party. Heaven forbid someone think this holiday is just for kids. 

Like most wine gimmicks, the package and not the product is the sizzle that sells the wine. Marketing people know you’re going to be staring at a sea of wine labels and often times it’s the quality of an exotic label that wins.  Sometimes the wine is even good. 

Concha y Toro makes Casillero del Diablo (Devi’s Castle) year-round, so it can’t be blamed for fabricating a label just for Halloween. Its wines sell for less than $15, so they are a good buy. Apothic Inferno and Ghost Pines are other wines made year-round and aren’t intended to appeal exclusively to trick or treaters.  This year Witching Hour and Vampire are sure to catch the attention of your party guests 

Root 1 Cabernet Sauvignon is being sold in a Halloween bag that would make a good gift for the host. The one we actually enjoyed, though, was Flora Springs Ghost Winery Malbec from Napa Valley. It’s a serious and memorable wine that stands above others that are capitalizing on the Halloween theme. 

October also happens to be Merlot Month, a declaration hardly the responsibility of the president or Congress. In fact, it’s another marketing gem created to spur sales. 

 Merlot is still the top third seller in the red wine field, although its popularity hasn’t been the same since Miles condemned the grape in his wine odyssey “Sideways.” However, we’ve been returning to many of our merlot favorites just to reaffirm our belief that good merlot can be made in the hands of good winemakers. Lest we forget, Petrus is one of the top wines in the world and it is made from merlot.  

Merlot is a good match to fall stews and chicken casseroles. Just don’t serve it with Halloween candy.  

 Here are a few merlots to celebrate the month:  

·                     Peju Napa Valley Merlot 2016 ($48). Peju is one of the most well-respected wineries in Napa Valley and it wouldn’t mess with merlot unless they could produce one that met its high standards. Like its other wines, the merlot is firm, full-bodied with juicy black cherry and blackberry notes and a hint of vanilla.  

·                     Gundlach Bundschu Sonoma Valley Merlot 2016 ($35). We liked the effusive aromas in this sturdy, hedonistic merlot that shows off black cherry flavors with hints of cassis and chocolate.  

·                     Charles Krug Napa Valley Merlot 2016 ($25). Blended with cabernet sauvignon, malbec and petit verdot, this delicious wine from an historic property has lots or ripe cherry and cranberry flavors with hints of spice.   

Cotes du Rhone  

The Cotes du Rhone region of the Rhone Valley is often regarded as a great source of red blends at a reasonable price. But is often forgotten as a source for good values in white wine.   

White wines from this region commonly offer big, thirst-quenching acidity and a variety of citrus and stone fruit flavors that come together from a wide blend of grapes, most notably grenache blanc, roussanne, clairette, marsanne, bourboulenc, viognier, ugni blanc and picpoul blanc. The wines are generally stainless-steel fermented to preserve the freshness of the fruit. That makes them good matches to shrimp, scallops, fresh vegetables and fish.  

Here are a few we recently tasted:  

·                     Domaine de la Janasse 2017 ($20). The blend is grenache blanc, bourboulenc, roussanne, clairette and viognier.  The golden color comes from the neutral foundre barrels that are used for one-year of aging. Look for stone-fruit flavors with a bit of mineral and fennel.  

·                     Domaine la Remejeanne les Arbousiers 2016 ($20). There are equal parts roussanne and clairette in this blend with help from viognier, marsanne and bourboulenc. Aged on the lees, there is a creaminess to the texture. Lots of peach and citrus notes.  

·                     Domaine La Manarine Cotes du Rhone Blanc 2017 ($20). The producer relies exclusively on clairette and bourboulenc grapes to craft this delightfully balanced wine that highlights fresh acidity but softens the blow with some malolatic fermentation.   

Wine picks 

·                     Pagos De Galir Godello Valdeorras 2017 ($19). From the Galicia region of Spain better known for its production of albarino, this white wine is produced in all stainless steel and aged on the lees for 5 months. Rich and ripe peach notes with a hint of citrus and some floral notes. Bracing acidity makes this a perfect match for seafood and chicken dishes.                                            

·                     Frescobaldi Chianti Classico DOCG Tenuta Perano 2015 ($29). Classic, well-made Chianti Classico from Frescobaldi, this wine is very grapey with dried cherry and berry notes and a hint of wood. Great for red-sauced Italian fare.                                

·                     Dry Creek Vineyards Fume Blanc Sonoma County 2018 ($16). A pretty style of sauvignon blanc that doesn’t assault the sense with a blast of grapefruit and herbs. Melon and fig dominate in a very smooth expression in the mouth with some citrus notes. Very easy and pleasant to drink even all by itself.            


Know your chardonnays — the influences of oak and ML

(October 13, 2019)


We’re stunned by the number of friends in our group who wouldn’t be caught dead ordering chardonnay, a maligned quaff too often associated with morning television hosts and soccer moms. Still, it remains the top-selling white wine in the United States. Someone is drinking it -- a lot of it. 

Chardonnay is initally more neutral in flavor that most white wines. Once harvested and crushed, chardonnay is like an empty canvass waiting for the winemaker’s creative strokes. Alas, sometimes those strokes are the work of surrealists. While Burgundy set the bar for great, elegant chardonnay, producers in other regions have run amok by experimenting with yeasts, adding excessive oak and manipulating texture with something called malolactic fermentation. Taste a simple Macon Village or Chablis alongside an over-oaked California chardonnay and you’ll experience the difference.  Wine-making surrealism. 

At the risk of boring you with all this chemistry, it’s important to write about malolactic fermentation to explain why many chardonnays are unappealing.  If you understand this, you’ll be able to identify the chardonnays that appeal to you.  

Used frequently in nearly all red wines, malolactic fermentation is a process that makes acidic wine softer. Tart, mouth-puckering malic acids are converted to softer-tasting lactic acid by adding a bacteria shortly after or during primary fermentation. The process is often called a secondary fermentation even though no yeasts are used. The result is a buttery flavor and sometimes hazelnut aromas. The degree of butter is determined by whether all of the chardonnay is exposed to MLF or just a part of it. 

The only other element with as much of an influence to chardonnay’s flavor is oak, which adds a lot of secondary flavors such as coconut, vanilla and baking spices. Together, oak and MLF can make a neutral wine very opulent in comparison to the elegant, austere French burgundies. 

Lest you think a winemaker is just playing around in the lab, there is often a good reason to use MLF. Chardonnay grapes grown in cooler climates, such as Chablis and the Sonoma Coast, have a lot of natural acidity and tend to be medium or light in body with apple and pear flavors.  Winemakers elect n to use MLF in order to preserve the fresh fruit and mineral qualities of their wines. However, many U.S. producers use MLF to tame high levels of acidity and to fatten up the chardonnay with a buttery texture. 

Chateau Montelena’s Napa Valley chardonnay is iconic and it has never used MLF. It’s 1973 chardonnay beat several expensive burgundies in a famous blind tasting called the Judgement in Paris  

Matt Crafton, Chateau Montelena’s winemaker, said in an email that MLF is “not a color we need to paint with here.“ He would rather depend on the ripeness of the grapes to provide texture to his well-respected chardonnay.  

“We let our vineyards and the unique character of the vintage drive how we make our wines…Over the past 40 years we’ve honed in on sites that are well suited for non-ML chardonnay,” he said. 

Crafton admits that chardonnays that fully undergo MLF and barrel aging will outsell the Montelena style “1000 to 1.” 

“Given the need for very specific growing conditions even in this tiny corner of the planet that is Napa Valley, our Chardonnay isn’t high-volume or scalable and we’re OK with that,” he said. 

Quite the opposite is the popular and well-regarded Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay, an opulent and creamy style wine. It goes through 100 percent MLF and 100 percent oak aging. 

Wines that use MLF and oak-aging aren’t necessarily bad. It’s impossible to deny their drinkability and success. But, an educated consumer can find the chardonnay that suits their palate if he or she knows what influences these practices bring to the wine.  If you like your chardonnay lush, buttery and delicious, ask your sales staff for wines with malolactic fermentation.  

Here are a few wines that demonstrate the range of styles: 

  • Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($58). Jasmine and citrus aromas are chased by fresh green apple flavors and hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. Stark minerality and balanced acidity make this a superb food wine. This chardonnay can age. 

  • Rombauer Vineyards Carneros Chardonnay 2018 ($38). Mango and peach notes with oak-inspired hints of vanilla and spice mingling with a creamy mouthfeel and classic butter that comes from MLF. 

  • Gary Farrell Olivet Lane Chardonnay 2016 ($45). We like this chardonnay because it has balance. The wine goes through 100 percent MLF, but the wine has good acidity because the grapes are picked at lower sugar levels. Lemon and apple aromas mingle with lemon cream and a dash of butter and toasted oak. Well balanced and soft mouthfeel.  

  • Newton Chardonnay Unfiltered Napa Valley 2016 ($55).  A phenomenal chardonnay that undergoes MLF and full barrel fermentation, this chardonnay is a perennial favorite because it is unfiltered. Pineapple and peach elements with a hint of minerality. A complex tasting experience with a creamy elegant finish.   

  • Kendall-Jackson Avant Unoaked Chardonnay California 2018 ($13). This refreshing wine is cold fermented in stainless steel tanks to create a pure expression. Crisp green apple, citrus and tropical fruit notes. One of the best buys in unoaked chardonnay. 

  • Balletto Teresa’s Vineyard Unoaked Chardonnay 2017. ($20). This reasonably priced chadonnay from the Russian River Valley has vibrant and pure apple flavors.  

  • Macon-Chaintre Floreal 2018 ($14). We love French chardonnay because it is unadorned and sometimes less expensive than California chardonnay. Don’t get hung up on finding this particular wine – just look for Macon Village, which represents some of the best value in pure chardonnay. This one has citrus fruit and pear on the nose and a well-balanced and complex palate with mineral notes. Fermented entirely in stainless steel tanks, it is a great example of food-friendly non-MLF chardonnay. 

  • Solitude Chardonnay Carneros 2014 ($29). Concentrated apples, pears and tropical fruit flavors. Full barrel, malolactic fermentation creates a creamy texture and adds cinnamon and toastiness. 

  • The Crusher Unoaked California Chardonnay 2017 ($18). Although the wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks, it undergoes MLF to give it a soft mouthfeel. Pineapple dominates the profile. 



The wines of Oceano and Hess

(October 7, 2019)


Rachel Martin cut her wine teeth in the mid 2000s with her involvement in the founding and management of the well-respected Boxwood Vineyards in Middleburg, Va.  

The winery is owned by her stepfather John Kent Cooke, son of the late Jack Kent Cooke.  John formally presided as president and owner of the NFL Washington Redskins until its sale to current owner Daniel Snyder in 1999. Rachel currently resides in New York with her son and partner/husband Kurt Deutsch. She has utilized her wine education in enology and viticulture from Napa Valley College, her experience at the University of Bordeaux School of Enology and her experience at Boxwood Vineyards to start a new wine venture, Oceano Wines, near San Luis Obisbo, CA.  

Martin, who owns 60 percent of Oceano and qualifies as a certified-woman-owned business, has produced and released two vintages of chardonnay and one vintage of pinot noir. Grapes are sourced from the Spanish Springs Vineyard in an area called the San Luis Obisbo Coast, which hopefully soon will receive AVA status.  

Martin showed us an interesting chart illustrating “growing degree days” that compared cool Central Coast and Sonoma County grape-growing areas. Pinot noir and chardonnay thrive in cooler climate areas. San Luis Obisbo Coast claims the least amount of growing degree days among cool climate grape-growing regions -- a paltry 2,018 of “growing degree days” compared to 2,580 such days in Russian River Valley’s pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards.  

Spanish Springs Vineyard is 1.5 miles from the frigid Pacific Ocean. The fog and cool wines in this maritime region dominate the climate.  

Oceano purchases about 10 tons of chardonnay fruit and 6 tons of pinot noir from the 100-acre Spanish Springs Vineyard and trucks the grapes to the Napa Valley where they are vinified by winemaker Marbue Marke at a custom crush facility. Marbue, a native of the West African Country of Sierra-Leone and a graduate of University of California Davis, has extensive experience as a winemaker for an impressive list of Napa and Sonoma wineries. 

We recently met with Martin to taste her current offerings.  

The Oceano Chardonnay San Luis Obisbo County Spanish Springs Vineyard 2016 ($40) was Oceano’s debut wine. As with many current higher end chardonnays this wine leans away from readily apparent oak notes and showcases ripe fruit, bright acidity, and an underlying minerality. Just a hint of oak belies the barrel fermentation and aging in French oak. This delicious white wine features citrus and tropical fruit elements in the nose and mouth.  Only 350 cases were made and may be difficult to source.  

The soon-to-be-released Oceano Chardonnay San Luis Obisbo County Spanish Springs Vineyard 2017 ($40) also expressed delightful citrus and tropical fruit notes, bracing acidity and a lovely creamy finish that lingered. Barrel fermentation and 11 months in French oak (30 percent new) added an elegant feel to this wine. Martin believes this wine should age well for up to 6 years.  

The stunner of our tasting was the Oceano Pinot Noir San Luis Obisbo County Spanish Springs Vineyard 2018 ($50). This soon-to-be-released wine is a top 10 pinot noir for us for the year. Bright, but ripe elements featuring plum and cherry notes with a pleasant note of spice in the finish. Medium bodied and balanced this debut pinot noir is a winner. 

Hess’ Argentina wines 

We’ve been admirers of Donald Hess founder of Hess Family Wine Estates for many years. In addition to Hess wine holdings in California they also produce notable wines brands from two high-altitude growing regions in Salta in Argentina’s Calchaqui Valley.  

The Colome Estate Torrontes Salta Argentina 2018 ($15) is a delightful example of the potential of this grape variety. Intense floral notes of roses, palate-cleansing acidity, with a base of citrus flavors create a beautiful tasting package.  

The Colome Estate Malbec Salta Argentina 2016 ($25) is impressive for its bold meaty, blackberry nose and flavors The wine displays a certain rusticity but with soft tannins making it ready to drink now.  

Hess also produces wines under the Amalaya label in Salta. We were very impressed both with the quality and price of the Amalaya Brut Nature Salta Argentina 2017 ($12) sparkling wine. With 80 percent riesling and 20 percent torrontes this impressive sparkler presented apple and peach elements in a very harmonious package. Bravo! 

More roses 

  • Bonterra Organic Vineyards Mendocino County Rose 2018 ($16). Fresh and bright red fruit flavors are dashed with nice citrus notes to make a pure and simple rose. 

  • Michel Chapoutier Belleruche Rose 2018 ($17). From the Cotes du Rhone, this producer uses the classic blend of grenache, syrah and cinsault to create a round and effusive rose with strawberry flavors and balanced acidity. 

  • Raeburn Rose 2018 ($20). We like the wines from this producer. Th is rose from the Russian River Valley leans primarily on pinot noir and grenache is made in a Provencal style with minimal skin contact.  Pure and fresh raspberry notes.   

  • Vega Sindoa Garnacha Rosado 2018 ($13). From Navarra, this beautiful rose has cherry and strawberry notes with good acidity. 

  • Scharffenberger Brut Rose Excellence ($23). This tasty blend of pinot noir and chardonnay provides a soft mouthfeel with raspberry and strawberry notes. Fruity and delicious.  



Finding the right definition of sauvignon blanc

(September 30, 2019)


 Along with the abundance of wine on the market from all corners of the earth comes a number of styles that often obscures the varietal definition of a particular grape.  A standard once set by the French is no longer valid in a competitive wine field where New World wines have become more popular. 

Pinot noir is a good example. While many producers, including those in California, once aspired to achieve Burgundy’s delicate and balanced style, West Coast winemakers commanded the U.S. market with bold fruit bombs.  

The same can be said about sauvignon blanc. The other day one of us enjoyed an expensive sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley of France. The 2014 Dagueneau Pouilly Fume is an extraordinary and expressive wine that sets the bar for sauvignon blanc. Didier Dagueneau was a legend and risk-taker until he died in an ultra-light plane accident in 2008. He defied his neighbors by cutting yields in half and raising the quality and price. He was not afraid to use oak barrels either. As others have said, tasting Dagueneau Pouilly Fume for the first time is an unforgettable revelation. However, it is not the sauvignon blanc that commands the mass market. 

The bold sauvignon blancs from New Zealand and the citrusy sauvignon blancs from California is what most people are drinking. Here are a few we have recently tasted: 

  • JUSTIN Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($16). Generous herbal and citrus aromas are followed by green apple, grapefruit and mineral notes.  

  • Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($30). Classic grapefruit and citrus flavors highlight this bracing and mouth-watering sauvignon blanc – the first made by this producer. It is partly aged for six months in oak barrels to boost the complexity.  

  • Gamble Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($28). One of our favorite sauvignon blancs year-to-year, this single-vineyard gem is composed of four clones, including a sauvignon musque which originates from the Loire and another which comes from Bordeaux. Seventy-five percent was aged in oak barrel. It is a complex sauvignon blanc with pink grapefruit, lemon and lime flavors and a touch of minerality. The aromas are extensive with tropical fruit, ginger and almond notes.  

  • Cakebread Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($30). Fresh acidity embraces the vast aromas of grapefruit and melon character of this delicious wine. Grapefruit carries through to the flavors with an additional layer of guava.  

  • Rombauer Vineyards Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($24). Lime and mango aromas give way to grapefruit and pineapple flavors in this robust and well-balanced sauvignon blanc from one of Napa Valley’s venerable producers. There is just a moderate level of grassiness.  

  • Benziger North Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($15). Nice and crisp, this value sauvignon blanc has pineapple and citrus flavors with a dash of minerality.  

  • Légende Bordeaux 2018 ($14). This sauvignon blanc, blended with a good dose of semillon, is a good example of the great white wines from Bordeaux. Reasonably priced, it has generous pineapple aromas, fresh acidity and full body. Made by the house of Barons de Rothschild.  

  • Amici Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($25). Tart citrus and grapefruit notes give way to a softer melon and pear mixture.  Balanced acidity and some nice minerality.  

 Celebrity wines 

 More and more celebrities are putting their names on wine bottles. We would be naïve to think that they are actually involved in making the wine. But their name alone helps to sell the wine. Here are a couple of new releases: 

 . Z. Alexander Brown Uncaged Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($18). Country singer Zac Brown teams up with winemaker John Killebrew in the second release of these well-priced wines. Drawing grapes from various vineyards in California, the wine is forward in style with ripe blackberry and plum flavors with a dash of chocolate. The “uncaged owl” on the label pays tribute to the sentry that protects the fruit of the vineyards. There is also a Proprietary Red Blend ($18) that is also delicious.   

  • Charles Woodson Intercept Red Blend 2017 ($18). University of Michigan Wolverines can enjoy their next game with a bottle of wine named after this Heisman Trophy graduate and NFL football great. A partnership with O’Neill Vintners & Distillers, Intercept is a line of four decent wines at reasonable prices. We love the label and this Paso Robles blend of petite sirah, zinfandel, petit verdot, tempranillo and syrah. Juicy, ripe with dark fruit flavors and a full body. 

Wine picks 

  • Bootleg Prequel Red Blend Sonoma County 2015 ($35). Another winner from Jackson Family wines, this is a modern-style blend of 85 percent syrah and 15 percent petite sirah.  Blueberry, blackberry and black pepper elements make up this outdoor barbeque friendly red wine. 

  • Mullan Road Cellars Columbia Valley Red Wine 2016 ($45).  Named after John Mullan, who built a road to connect Montana to Washington state in 1860, this Columbia Valley blend captures the spirit of winemakers willing to take chances. Except in this case, it’s not much of a chance to take when the genius behind the wine is Dennis Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars. It is Cakebread’s first venture out of Napa Valley and he has the assistance of local winemaker Aryn Morrell. A blend of cabernet sauvignon (51 percent), merlot and cabernet franc, it is a wine that will make you thirst for a second and third glass. Black currant, raspberry and rosemary aromas are chased by cherry and plum flavors with a touch of oak. Fine tannins portend good things to come for those who are patient enough to hold this complex and delicious wine. 


A look at Ermanno wines from Italy

(September 23, 2019)


Simone Ermanno was spending his honeymoon in the United States when he stopped by to introduce his family’s wines, Ermanno Costa. He wasn’t the first to combine business with pleasure, but most of the time, the 28-year-old is working his family’s organic vineyards in the Roero region of Italy’s Piedmonte. 

“I drive the tractor and my sisters (Fabrizia and Giorgia) are in the cellar,” Ermanno said.  

They represent the fourth generation to make wine and, as tradition goes, no one is immune from chores. 

Ermanno Costa is a small 17-acre, 3,000-case winery that bottles only estate wine from their lots of chardonnay, arneis, barbera, brachetto and nebbiolo.  

The winery is located on the north side of the Tanaro River across from the wine growing regions of Barolo and Barbaresco. Ermanno explained that their side (Roero) of the Tanaro River is primarily sandy soils while the more prestigious Barolo and Barbaresco side of the river’s vineyard are in clay soils.  

Ermanno said the sandy soils promote “more aromatics and less body,” especially in the nebbiolo wines. 

We were impressed with the easy accessibility of the Ermanno Costa wines. The Ermanno Costa “Balin” Piedmonte 2018 ($30) is all chardonnay and is totally produced in stainless steel tanks, thus creating a pure fruit experience for those who eschew oak in their white wines.  

The Ermanno Costa Arneis Roero DOCG 2018 ($24) is a superstar in the world of arneis. In many cases arneis produces an undistinguished white wine that is eminently forgettable. Not so in this case. This wine had very expressive apple and peach notes and a hint of flowers. No oak exposure made this a perfect pairing for many fish and poultry dishes. 

The Ermanno Costa Barbera d”Alba Piedmonte DOC 2014 ($25). Is made entirely from barbera. This example also defies the typically simple barbera that washes down a good bit of the pizza consumed in this country. It is aged in new and old French oak, presenting ample cherry notes accented by elements of earth and leather.  

Ermanno Costa Roero DOCG Piedmonte 2014 ($32) is for those of you craving a nebbiolo experience without having to wait for it to age. Big, deep, ripe fruit dominates this soft tannic red wine with a whiff of licorice. Made entirely of nebbiolo, it is aged in French oak for 18-20 months, and would be a great accompaniment to big red meat dishes.  

Spanish riojas 

We’ve been tasting through a number of riojas lately. Here are our favorites: 

·         CVNE Cune Rosado 2018 ($13). Using tempranillo only, this Rioja rosé is light in color, but sporting generous floral and strawberry aromas with a touch apricot and peach. Hint of licorice. 

·         CVNE Cune Rioja Crianza 2016 ($13). Jammy blackberry and wild berry flavors with a dash of licorice and oak-inspired vanilla and cocoa nuances.  It is a blend of tempranillo (85 percent), garnacha tinta and mazuelo.  

·         CVNE Vina Real Crianza 2016 ($16). Fresh cherry and blackberry flavors with a dash of licorice. 

·         Bodegas Ollauri Conde de los Andes Tinto 2015 ($50). This serious, full-throttle Rioja is made entirely of tempranillo grapes from old vineyards. Strawberry and cherry aromas open the door to ripe plum flavors. 

·         Kirkland Signature Rioja Reserva 2014 ($7). This is an insane price for a medium-bodied rioja this good. We tucked it into a flight of more expensive riojas and it held its own at half the price. Made entirely from tempranillo grapes, it has blackberry notes with hints of spice, licorice and vanilla. 

·         Marques de Murrieta Rioja 2015 ($30). A blend of tempranillo,garnacha, mazuelo and graciano, this medium-bodied wine explodes in ripe dark fruit flavors with hints of tobacco and spice.  

·         Bodegas Muriel Vina Eguia Reserva 2015 ($19). Wonderfully luxurious and rich, this tempranillo from Rioja exudes ripe red fruit with hints of licorice, spice and vanilla. 

Wine picks 

·         Artezin Zinfandel  Mendocino County 2017 ($16). If you want to taste what zinfandel is all about, try this wine that the producer calls a zinny zin. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves even on our best day of wordsmithing.  It is 85 percent zinfandel with 15 percent petite sirah and aged in 1- to 2-year-old French oak barrels. Ripe blackberry and raspberry notes dominate with accents of cinnamon and pepper. Unctuous and long lasting in the mouth. 

·         McIntyre L”Homme Qui Ris Methode Champenoise Sparkling Wine Santa Lucia Highlands N/V ($42). This is an amazingly good sparkling wine from a region not known for producing world-class sparklers. It is 100 percent pinot noir and aged on the lees “en tirage” for four years prior to disgorgement. The wonderfully complex wine exhibits baked apple toast and citrus and floral notes in the nose and mouth. Very satisfying long finish. A must try for sparkling wine aficionados. 

·         Masseria Altemura Sasseo Primitivo IGT Salento 2016 ($18). This is an amazing, powerful wine for the price. Primitivo is a kissing cousin of zinfandel and displays elements of blueberry and blackberry fruit with ample acidity and palate cleansing tannins. Perfect for barbecues or winter red meat dishes. 

·         The Federalist Honest Red Blend Northern Coast 2016 ($22). A delicious blend of merlot (55 percent) and zinfandel, and a splash of cabernet sauvignon. The softer merlot and more aggressive zinfandel balance out to create a pleasant mouth-filling experience. Smooth but mouth filling big fruited red wine.     

Oregon’s forgotten pinot gris

(September 16, 2019)


When you think of the Willamette Valley, you probably think first of pinot noir. Maybe you will think of chardonnay, but will you think of pinot gris? Start thinking. This is one of the most underrated wines of the West Coast. 

While California is known for a lot of different grape varieties, Oregon’s Willamette Valley is known for only a few. Its cooler climate doesn’t allow for long ripening periods that, say, zinfandel requires. However, its slow ripening season with a burst of heat at the end is ideal for pinot gris. It is a grape variety you won’t find in the warmer California region. 

Pinot gris is actually a descendant of pinot noir and It is known as pinot grigio in Italy and pinot blanc in other parts of the world. They’re all the same grape variety, but soils and climates give them a different spin. In the Willamette Valley, that spin includes pears, apple and sometimes melon flavors. If the grapes are harvested early, the wine is lighter. Picked later, however, the wine can be richer and even a tad sweet. 

David Lett of Eyrie introduced pinot gris to the valley in 1965 and it was slow to take hold. But today there is more pinot gris harvested in Willamette Valley than chardonnay. It has earned the title of Willamette Valley’s premier white wine. 

King Estate Winery is one of the region’s leaders in making pinot gris. Winemaker Brent Stone believes the grape variety can eventually earn the same recognition for quality as chardonnay. He likes making pinot gris because it requires a minimalist approach: no oak aging or malolatic fermentation. This allows for a more pure expression of fruit character. 

“I think it already has (achieved recognition) in many winemaking circles and will continue to gain recognition as regions such as Oregon become more widely distributed,” he said in an email. His winery in the Willamette Valley produces three outstanding and distinctive pinot gris ranging in price from $19 to $29. 

If you like Italian pinot grigio, you really should check out Oregon’s pinot gris. You’ll will find some striking similarities but also significant differences.   

Stone said, “When I think of pinot gris, I think of cooler growing regions like Alsace and Oregon – having wines with slightly higher acidity that are perhaps somewhat richer and more ageable. When I think of pinot grigio, I think of warmer regions and a riper style with perhaps more emphasis on fruit flavors. They appeal to different audiences.” 

These are wines that would marry well with roasted chicken, seafood and white pasta sauces. Our favorite match was mahi mahi with a pineapple salsa. 

Many Oregon winemakers have told us they would rather see chardonnay be the region’s number one white wine because it is more universally known and more respected. We’ve tasted a lot of good chardonnay from Willamette Valley, but pinot gris is the region’s strength.  

We conducted a recent tasting of more than 15 pinot gris and were stunned by the quality, value and food-friendless of the grape. Here were the stand-outs: 

·         King Estate Backbone Pinot Gris 2017 ($28). Don’t waste your money on Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. This premium pinot gris has a lot more going for it. By fermenting and aging individual blocks and vineyards separately, the winemaker can hand-select fruit from a special range of vineyards. Each lot delivers a different element to the wine, which makes this wine multi-dimensional with fresh pear and pineapple flavors and hints of citrus and mineral.  Rich in style. 

·         King Estate Pinot Gris 2017 ($19). The regular bottling of King’s pinot gris is very respectable with similar pear and pineapple flavors. It is still rich in style but maybe not as layered as the Backbone. 

·         Archery Summit Vireton Pinot Gris 2017 ($24). This was probably the most unique pinot gris we tasted in the group and thus one of the ones we really enjoyed. The fruit is more vibrant and fresher with a good dose of minerality, apple and melon flavors with balanced acidity.  The winemaker uses Alsatian-style yeasts which may be the reason for its uniqueness. 

·         Duck Pond Fries Family Cellars Pinot Gris 2018 ($25). Duck Pond makes a lot of different wines, but our money is on this lean pinot gris with lemon zest, nectarine and tropical fruit notes. 

·         Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Gris 2017 ($17). A well-balanced and fruity pinot gris using an Alsace clone, this exotic pinot gris shows off peach and melon aromas, followed by pear and apple flavors. Very elegant. 

·         Sokol Blosser Estate Pinot Gris2018 ($22).  Generous bouquet of honeysuckle mingles with ripe melon, white peach and citrus flavors. Dry and minerally, it has a round mouthfeel. 

·         WillaKenzie Pinot Gris 2018 ($32).  Very aromatic with lime zest and melon flavors. Delicious to the last drop. 

·         Iris Vineyards Arete Pinot Gris 2018 ($45).  You may balk at spending this kind of money for pinot gris, but it’s worth every penny. Chardonnays cost more than this and don’t deliver as much pleasure.  It is the richest pinot gris we tasted but the high acidity keeps it in balance. It is one of the few that was fermented in neutral oak puncheons. A touch of residual sugar rounds off the flavors and softens the acidity.   Iris makes a $16 pinot gris that is more classical in style and with a little more residual sugar. 

·         Firesteed Pinot Gris 2018 ($16).  Meyer lemon aromas blend seamlessly with pear and tropical fruit flavors. Its bright acidity makes it a good match to cheeses and any citrus-based sauce. 

Wine picks 

·         Wrath Syrah Monterey San Saba Vineyard 2016 ($39). In a blind tasting this is a dead ringer for a good vintage Crozes Hermitage from the Northern Rhone. Blackberry and very ripe strawberry notes with leather accents this would pair well with heavy winter red meat stews and roasts. 

·         La Crema Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2016 ($40). La Crema does it again with a benchmark setting pinot noir from the on fire Russian River Valley. Bright cherry notes with prominent spicy accents especially cinnamon. Very food friendly and balanced and a mouth filling experience. 



Cabernet sauvignons ready to drink

(September 8, 2019)


We often hear the complaint that expensive cabernet sauvignons are too tannic to drink. It may explain the popularity of merlot, a grape variety that produces smooth, quaffable wines. However, the trend to make cabernet sauvignon more approachable has morphed into a tradition for many California producers. With only a percent of people who call themselves collectors, winemakers realize that most of their customers want their cabernets ready to drink with tonight’s dinner – not a holiday dinner that is a decade away.  

We’ve assembled a short list of a few cabernet sauvignons that are especially drinkable without further aging. These wines have a fruit-forward character that makes them delicious yet they have enough body to make them a good match to beef and even short-term aging. Here they are: 

  • Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($57).   This approachable cabernet has delicious and ripe black cherry flavors and a hint of vanilla and cedar. Blended with merlot, malbec and petite verdot.  

  • DeLille Cellars D2 2016 ($42). The name for this Columbia Valley wine comes from the road that passes through the historic chateau region of Bordeaux. The heavy content of merlot makes this spectacular wine more approachable yet its power should not be underestimated. The blend includes cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. It is complex with red fruit flavors and hints of spice. Soft tannins make it an easy drink.   

  • Bellacosa North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($22). Talented winemaker Daniel Cohn continues to make one of the best values in cabernet sauvignon.  With a complex, dark fruit nose, the wine oozes with ripe plum and raspberry flavors.  Its velvety texture and smooth tannins make it an easy drink to enjoy now.  

  • Louis M. Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($40). This full-bodied wine never disappoints us year after year. You get a lot of flavor for your buck: loads of ripe plum and black currants with fine tannins and lingering finish.   

  • Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($60).  Blended with malbec, merlot and petit verdot, this full-bodied yet approachable cabernet sauvignon has effusive violet and clove aromas followed by dark fruit flavors and a hint of earth and tobacco.  

  • J. Lohr Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($35). Forward ripe cherry, cassis and blackberry flavors are offered in a soft but deceiving shell. Very approachable now.   

  • Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2016 ($50). Interesting eucalyptus and mint in the nose with Blackberry and tea elements in the mouth. A very complete wine with a long length. 

  • Concannon Vineyards Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($20). Ripe plums and cherries give this wine an immediate appeal. Established in 1883, Concannon was a pioneer in making cabernet sauvignon – 80 percent of California’s cabernet sauvignon crop is a descendent of its clones. Cherry and plum flavors with hints of spice, cocoa and vanilla.  

ZD Wines 

ZD Wines is celebrating 50 years of winemaking in the fabulous Rutherford growing region in Napa Valley. We have followed these wines for decades and they continue to represent the quality of this region.   

The 2017 ZD Wines Founders Reserve Pinot Noir ($90) from Carneros is a luxurious wine with dense dark fruit flavors and hints of vanilla and cedar.  Not to be outdone in quality is the ZD Reserve Chardonnay ($80) that competes with anything from California.  

The ZD Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($80) is a concentrated, full-bodied wine with ripe cassis and dark fruit flavors, long finish, dense tannins and hints of clove. It is blended with 12 percent petit verdot.  

Wine picks 

  • Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico 2014 ($35). Floral and cherry aromas with a hint of clove. Plum and spice flavors join fine tannins and hints of mocha.  

  • Casillero del Diablo Reserva Privada Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($20). This reasonably priced cabernet from Maipo alley, Chile, offers a lot of body for the money. Ripe plum and cherry notes with fine tannins and a velvet mouthfeel.  

  • Dutcher Crossing Taylor Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($50). The additional bottle age helps to tame this giant win with ripe blackberry and raspberry flavors.   

  • Newton Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($59).  Red fruit combines with oak-inspired vanilla and chocolate notes to make a terrific, firm cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley. Newton makes great and consistent cabernet sauvignon across the board. This is one of the more reasonably priced versions.  

  • Lassègue Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2011 ($65). Additional bottle age rounds off this well-balanced and hedonistic Bordeaux blend of merlot (62 percent), cabernet franc (30 percent) and cabernet sauvignon (8 percent).  Floral aromas with ripe blackberry flavors with mineral and herbal notes.  

  • Tenuta Regaleali Bianco Sicily 2018 ($15). We loved the refreshing and unique flavors of this blend of inzolia, grecanico, catarratto and chardonnay. Crisp acidity makes it a great foil for warmer temperatures.  

  • Prophecy Rose Vin de France 2017 ($15). This wine is a great way to start a holiday party. It is a blend that is dominated by grenache and cinsault. Prophecy makes wines from around the world and this cherry-dominated French rose is perfectly balanced. 

  • Champagne Palmer & Co. Rose Reserve N/V ($75-$85). This is a very light, delicate style of Champagne with a pale salmon hue. Citrus and apple notes dominate with a hint of strawberry, an alluring yeasty nose. The pink color comes red wine from a 35-year-old solera.                                                                                                                            



Super Tuscans: a story of rebellion and success

(September 1, 2019)


There are many examples in the history of wine when the impulses of winemakers have revolutionized the industry. We think of the pioneers who grew vines on California mountainsides where no one feared to tread or through the enormous rocks of the Rhone Valley. We think of pioneers like Abe Schoener of California’s Scholium Project who is creating very expressive wines by abandoning or adjusting conventional wisdom. We think of the young French winemakers, such as Michel Chapoutier, who rejected his ancestor’s winemaking techniques to forge new and successful directions.

And, in today’s column we think of the winemakers in Italy’s often maligned Chianti region who created the now famous “super Tuscan” wines by defying 19th century regulations.

You probably have heard of “super Tuscans,” the blended wine that was surprisingly created in the 1970s but not exploited until decades later. Their history is rooted in the frustration of legendary Chianti winemakers, including Piero Antinori and Marchese Nicolo Incisa della Rocchetta.

Both well-respected wine producers were frustrated by their region’s regulations that required them to use only indigenous grape varieties. Chianti, for instance, had to contain a fair amount of sangiovese, other lower quality red varieties and even 10 percent white grapes. It was all about pride for the locally grown grapes that were part of Chianti’s history.

But the government’s insistence on this indigenous blend sullied Chianti’s reputation for years because the wines were often acidic and uninspiring.  Antinori and Marchese Rocchetta knew they could make better wine if they could add other grape varieties to the blend, particularly cabernet sauvignon and merlot, to moderate the high acidity common to sangiovese. They began to grow the grapes in small lots and experimented with blends made for just themselves. They witnessed the improvements.

When government regulators refused to amend its DOC certification, Rocchetta broke ranks. He made a wine called Sassicaia with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc and released it for sale in the late 1960s without the prized DOC title or even “Chianti” on the label. In fact, the declassified wine had to be called table wine – a derogatory title usually reserved for cheap plonk.

Sassicaia was hardly cheap or inferior. It soared in popularity and encouraged Antinori to do the same with his now famous Tignanello blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.  Both wines cost more than $200 today.

These were the first wines of what we now call Super Tuscans.

After other winemakers joined the crusade, government regulators finally relented. In 1992 they created a new designation, IGT, to elevate Super Tuscans from its table wine position. However, wine producers continued to use unique names to identify their wines.

Their success encouraged winemakers in other regions of Italy to defy restrictive regulations. Most notably, Angelo Gaja declassified his barollos and added cabernet sauvignon to the local nebbiolo grapes in the Piedmonte region.

Unfortunately, Super Tuscans have no definition today. They can be a blend of almost any grape variety, including syrah, and the quality is all over the board. A $15 Super Tuscan is not hard to find but it hardly compares to the like of Sassicaia.

Nonetheless, we found a half dozen extraordinary Super Tuscans for less than $30 that over deliver:

·         San Felice Bell’Aja 2016 ($25). A blend of 60 percent merlot and 40 percent cabernet, this fruit-forward wine from the Bolgheri region of coastal Tuscany has a mediumbody with smooth and bright cherry and plum flavors. Tannins are fine and persistent.

·         Le Volte dell Ornellaia 2016 ($25). A blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sangiovese combine to create a juicy blackberry and blueberry profile with a good dose of licorice.  We have enjoyed this wine over several vintages and it never fails to please.

·         Argiano Non Confunditur 2016 ($16). The name is Latin for unique, unmistakeable. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah work with the local sangiovese to offer a layered and textured profile. We loved its generous floral aromas, full body and notes of black currants and red berries.

·         San Felo Aulus Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($25).  Our favorite of this flight, this single-vineyard wine doesn’t need any other grape varieties to soar. Complex aromas of cherries and raspberries, it opens to a dense and layered profile of ripe black plums and cherries with hints of mineral and chocolate.

·         Marchese Antinori Tenuta Guado al Tasso Il Bruciato Bolgheri 2016 ($25).   A second label to Antinori’s legendary Tignanello, this exquisite wine has ripe red berry and spicy aromas, and persistent cherry and blackberry flavors with a hint of licorice and chocolate. Soft texture and long finish. It is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. From Bolgheri, the wine has been produced by Antinori since 1990, which makes it a pioneer in the super tustcan movement.

·         Tenuta Luce della Vite Lucente 2016 ($29). A second label of this property, the Lucente is a blend of merlot and sangiovese. It has impressed us year after year. Ripe red berry fruit aromas are followed by pure cherry and wild berry flavors with a hint of tobacco. Round in the mouth and long in the finish.

Wine picks

·         Dutcher Crossing Bacigalupi Zinfandel 2016 ($17). We liked this firm but reasonably complex zinfandel from the Russian River Valley. Generous raspberry and black cherry aromas mingle with blackberry and cherry flavors with oak-inspired hints of spice and vanilla. Excellent finish.

·         Cakebread Cellars Two Creeks Vineyards Pinot Noir 2017 ($45).  We always think of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon when we think of Cakebread Cellars, but this pinot noir got us to thinking again. Floral and cherry aromas give way to opulent raspberry and strawberry flavors and fine, supple tannins. Delicious and long in the finish.



A long review of St. Supery’s fine wines

(August 26, 2019)


We have tasted many St. Supery wines over the years and have come to hold this Napa Valley vineyard in high regard. Hosting a recent tasting of current releases and a couple of past vintages provided an informative and interesting afternoon for us and a couple of volunteer tasters. Mentioning the volunteer tasters is important because one of them provided an “aha” moment later in the tasting. 

 Robert Skalli founded St. Supery in the 1980’s with the purchase and planting of 500 acres at the Dollarhide Ranch in the northeast mountains of Napa Valley and 56 acres in Rutherford, the Napa Valley site of today’s winery. The fashion house Chanel Inc. purchased St. Supery in 2015 and correspondingly opened a tasting salon on high-fashion Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills in 2017.  

St. Supery is known primarily for its sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, although they grow and market several white,  rosé , red blends and other individual Bordeaux grapes. 

We tasted 4 current releases of St. Supery’s wines and supplemented two older sauvignon blanc vintages for context. The current vintage St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc Estate Napa Valley 2018 ($24) presented very fresh and bright citrus and peach notes and ample acidity that we found lively and refreshing to drink.  

The St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc Estate Napa Valley 2017 was a softer, rounder version of the 2018 with more herbal notes. One of our tasters commented that this was a “comfort wine.” 

We preferred the current releases of the St. Supery sauvignon blancs over its slightly aged earlier vintages. We liked the St Supery Dollarhide Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2017 ($41), which contrasted significantly from their regular Napa Estate bottling. Aged in 100 percent French oak this sauvignon blanc is reminiscent of the rare white wines from some of Bordeaux’s finest Grand Cru vineyards. Aging in French oak (17percent new) creates a creamy oak, honeyed, spicy expression in this elegant white wine.  

One of our tasters commented that this wine was evocative of a California chardonnay, probably due to the oak treatment.  

The 2015 version was not as distinguished, losing some of its charm over time. The “aha” moment came with the tasting of the St. Supery Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Napa Valley 2016 ($45). One of our volunteer tasters had expressed concern that he wouldn’t be able to appreciate and identify the qualities of the premium wines we shared. He explained that the wines he normally consumes were value oriented, leaning more toward 1.5-liter, mass market wines and some box wines as well.  

A surprised expression crossed his face as he sniffed and swirled the 2016 St. Supery Cabernet Sauvignon and he readily confirmed that he could indeed appreciate and identify a clearly superior wine. We agreed and declared this wine the star of the tasting with its ripe and rich, cherry and cassis nose and flavors with a whiff of chocolate. A great example of a well-priced Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.  

We also tasted a current vintage St. Supery Cabernet Sauvignon Dollarhide Ranch Napa Valley 2014 ($105), which exhibited more cassis notes in a very smooth and elegant package. We suspect this wine will develop well over the next 3-5 years while the 2016 St. Supery Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley is delightful now. 


With the heat still on us, there’s a lot of time to enjoy a glass of rosé on the patio or boat. With more producers making  rosé  now than ever, there is a glut of good wines to be enjoyed. Here are some new discoveries: 

  • OZV Rosé  of Primitivo California 2018.  Made from a grape variety that is a kin of zinfandel, this boisterous and tasty  rosé  has strawberry and raspberry flavors with a floral, tropical fruit nose and hints of lemon and tangerine. 

  • Hearst Ranch Winery Julia Rosé  2017 ($22).  Made from a Paso Robles blend of syrah, malbec, grenache, petit verdot, petite sirah, and tempranillo, this  rosé  has bright red berry fruit, some complexity and minerality. 

    Olema Pinot Noir Rosé  Monterey 2018 ($25). This domestic producer offers a lot of fruit in the nose and mouth of their  rosé . Notes of strawberry and citrus dominate this luscious wine ending with a pleasant mouth filling experience.           

    • Grounded Wine Co. Space Age Grenache Rosé  2018 ($15). Using grapes from the Central Coast, winemaker Josh Phelps has crafted a fresh and vibrant  rosé  with strawberry and watermelon notes. Balanced acidity. 

    • Chateau Roubine La  rosé  Cotes de Provence 2018 ($24). A blend of grenache, cinsault, syrah and tibouren (new to us), this  rosé  has a beautiful salmon color and delicate red berry flavors with a touch of anise and an infusive floral nose. 

    • “M” de Minuty  Rosé  2018 ($21). One of our favorite Provence  rosé s year over year, Minuty’s value version is a classic blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah. It  has balanced acidity and has bright peach and citrus notes. Chateau Minuty’s 2018 Rosé  et Or ($40) takes  rosé  to another level with more complexity and a longer finish. 

Favorite wines that over deliver

(August 12, 2019)


Last week’s column featured some of the great wines of California’s elite Rutherford district. Alas, the wines of this special region come at great price and many of you rolled your eyes over our suggestion that you open the wallet for one of them.  At more than $100 a bottle you could buy a case of something else that was just fine. As one of you wrote, can any of these wines taste 10 times better than a $12 bottle of wine? 

For most of you, the answer is a resounding “no.” So, as penance for a column that left you nothing to buy, this week we’re featuring 10 incredibly great values that should give you relief.  These are wines we have tasted year after year and which never fail to please. Oftentimes, they are discounted. They should be relatively easy to find at your local wine shop. 

  • Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($12). Just about every red wine made by this Washington producer is gold. The cabernet sauvignon has surprisingly good complexity with dark fruit notes and a hint of vanilla. The producers ridiculously delicious 2016 H3 cabernet sauvignon from Horse Heaven Hills is only $15 and has loads of blackberry and black cherry fruit. 

  • J. Lohr Paso Robles Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($17). What J. Lohr lacks in complexity is made up by loads of fruit-forward flavors. They define “luscious” in the world of wine whether it be its pinot noir, merlot or cabernet sauvignon. This gem has blueberry aromas and cherry, strawberry flavors with a good dose of cocoa powder and mocha.   

  • Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhone 2917 ($16).  Yes, you can buy good French wine under $20.  Just look to the Cotes du Rhone where syrah, grenache, mourvedre and other grape varieties combine to create tasty wines with the acidity you need to pair them with grilled foods. We love the Gigondas made by this producer, but the value is in its simple Cotes du Rhone. 

  • M. Chapoutier Belleruche Cotes du Rhone 2017 ($14). This reputable producer from the Rhone Valley always makes a wine that over delivers. This medium body wine has generous raspberry flavors with strong acidity and a hint of licorice. 

  • Benziger North Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($15). Nice and crisp, this value sauvignon blanc has pineapple and citrus flavors with a dash of minerality.  

  • Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay 2017 ($18). From the Livermore Valley where vineyard property is significantly less costly than in Napa Valley, Wente takes advantage of early ripening grapes to create a delicious chardonnay year after year. This one has citrus and apple flavors with a dose of minerality. 

  • Marietta Old Vine Red ($16). In place of a vintage, this Sonoma County producer labels the wine with a lot number, which allows it to make more than one batch in a year. We’ve been enjoying this wine literally for decades and it still amazes us for the price. Zinfandel based, the recipe changes every year but generally blends a lot of grape varieties grown on old vines. Nothing complex here – just delicious fruit that makes music with grilled burgers, pizza and ribs. 

  • Can Blau Montsant 2017 ($14). From the Montsant region of Spain, this wine over-delivers in forward, luscious fruit. A blend of red grape varieties, it has a generous floral, lavender aroma with ripe dark berry fruit flavors. 

  • Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc ($14). If you like the grassy, herbaceous flavors of New Zealand sauvignon blancs, try this stellar version. Classic grapefruit and lime flavors merge with vibrant acidity to take the edge off a warm August day. 

  • Hugel Gentil 2018 ($14). This is a versatile white wine from Alsace to serve with summer outdoor fare. A blend of six grape varieties, it has a smooth texture and loads of stone fruit flavors with a dash of spice. 

Wine picks 

  • DeLille Cellars Chaleur Blanc 2017 ($35). We loved this delicious blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc from Columbia Valley. It is the combination of grapes that makes white Bordeaux so famous but rarely adopted by American wine producers. The semillon blunts the bracing acidity and pungent grassy flavors of most sauvignon blancs. The Chaleur Blanc is fermented sur lie in French oak barrels to round off the flavors and provide a rich texture. Stone fruit and citrus aromas mingle with lemon curd, tropical fruit and mango flavors. 

  • Double Diamond Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($70). A collaboration between Fred Schrader and Schrader Cellars, this full-bodied cabernet sauvignon is impressive for its tannin structure and classic Napa Valley flavors of dark cherries and black currants. Blended with just a bit of merlot, it is a wine that can be enjoyed now with grilled steak or set aside for a few years. 

  • Balletto Pinot Gris 2018 ($20). We enjoyed the lush peach and citrus flavors in this simple but delicious wine from the Russian River Valley. 

Rutherford: perhaps the best region in California

(August 29, 2019)


There may be no other place in Napa Valley – or California for that matter – which can claim the remarkable success in making premium wines as Rutherford. Some of the state’s most historic wineries share precious space with newcomers who have sought their place in one of the most fertile and climate-blessed regions. It is here where some of the best and most long-lived cabernet sauvignons in the world are made.

Among the legendary winemakers in the Rutherford AVA are Beaulieu, Inglenook, Heitz, Caymus, Staglin, Peju and Quintessa. As valley floor vineyards took up the most fertile ground, many of the newcomers have had to find new property up the mountain slope where it is harder and more expensive to grow the Bordeaux grape varieties.

Located south of St. Helena and just north of Oakville, Rutherford is smack dab in the middle of Napa Valley. Most of the vineyards are planted in the valley floor where soils – created by the retreat of San Pablo Bay -- vary from clay to gravelly loam. It’s the latter soil that is most desired because it allows for better drainage.

Abundant sunshine allows the grapes to fully mature and damp fog and winds from the bay cool off the grapes in the late afternoon. Although Napa Valley was among the oldest regions settled by winemakers, it wasn’t until 1993 that Rutherford was declared an appellation.

Jeff Cole, director of winemaking for Sullivan wines, says there is no other place he’d rather be making wine. A native of Napa Valley, Cole appreciates his experience in other California regions but feels fortunate to be making great cabernet sauvignons at Sullivan, a small-production winery now owned by Juan Pablo Torres-Padilla and a family-driven group of investors.

 “The cabernet sauvignon is very unique here,” Cole said. “The tannins are more pronounced and up front. There is no astringency or bitterness either.”

The region is most famous for its “Rutherford dust,” a phrase coined by Russian émigré Andre Tchelistcheff, whose hand has touched a number of historic wineries in Napa Valley -- most notably Beaulieu Vineyards. He was talking about granular or “dusty” tannins that couple with cocoa powder to give the Rutherford AVA its unique properties. While many of the red wines from this region are immense, they are not plagued by bitter tannins that take decades to resolve.

Cole said the challenge of the area is finding the right pockets best suited for high-end cabernet sauvignon. These are not the pockets of clay soil but the well-drained deep gravel and loam. The damp soil in the valley increases vigor in the vineyards, he says, so attention needs to be applied to thinning and trellising.

The flavors here tend to be of darker fruits – cherry and cassis – with savory, earthy and mineral elements, good acidity and on occasion a touch of mint that is common in Napa Valley.

We recently opened a 2007 HALL cabernet sauvignon and it still had not shed its tannins. With vineyards in Rutherford at the base of the Mayacama Mountains, HALL makes excellent, long-living cabernet sauvignons and shows the longevity of wines from this region.

Another reliable Rutherford producer is Frank Family Vineyards, now housed in the historic Larkmead Winery. Winemaker Todd Graff says he likes the diversity of the appellation.

 “Our Winston Hill Vineyard on the eastern banks of the Vaca Range, ripens on the earlier side and is loaded aromatically with black fruits and purity of cabernet. Whereas, our Benjamin vineyard on the valley floor is a mid to late ripener and has more blue and red fruits with great energy in the palate. We prefer to keep those interpretations stylistically different with individual bottlings.”

Alas, the cost of vineyards in this region and its history has led to not just the best cabernet sauvignons, but also the most expensive. Here are a few of the colossal wines we have tasted from the Rutherford:

·         Gamble Family G. Thomas Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($205). Winemaker Tom Gamble named this incredible wine after his father George and his grandfather Thomas who created the family wine legacy. Although expensive and allocated, we list it because it shows not only the potential of the Rutherford AVA but also of this excellent Oakville producer. Strawberry, raspberry and cassis highlight this dense and savory wine. Cabernet franc and petite verdot mix with the cabernet sauvignon to provide a layered and powerful blockbuster.

·         Sullivan Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($110). Full bodied, this Rutherford cabernet exudes richness. Great structure, lasting but fine tannins, plum and blackberry flavors with layers of cedar, tobacco, herbs and red currants. 

·         Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($145). We have enjoyed this iconic wine for decades. Although the property has undergone ownership changes since we first tasted it, the reserve cabernet remains among the best in its lofty category. A wine that can age for 15 years or more, it draws from some of the best vineyards in the AVA: BV Ranches 1 and 2, first planted in the 1900s by Latour himself. Always concentrated, this reserve Bordeaux-grape blend is highly layered with fresh raspberry, dark cherry and cassis flavors with hints of cedar and cinnamon. The soft tannins are a good example of the “Rutherford dust.” BV also makes a Rutherford cabernet sauvignon that at $44 is a good buy. About 80 percent of the grapes from the ranch vineyards and this wine has the same cocoa powder tannins that symbolized Rutherford dust.

·         Frank Family Vineyards Rutherford Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($95). This is an immense wine that shows the structure and power that comes from the Rutherford region.  Loaded with plum and blackberry flavors and dalliances with espresso, dried herbs and a touch of mineral. Fine and cocoa powder tannins make it approachable in its youth but promise a long future. Also drawing from Rutherford fruit is the 2015 Frank Family Winston Hill red blend that uses Bordeaux varieties from the producer’s top vineyard. Rich and dense in texture, it is a balanced wine that again offers the black fruit character with a hint of vanilla.

Wine picks

·         Chehalem Pinot Gris 2018 ($20). We were very impressed with this fresh and delicious pinot gris from the Willamette Valley. From the Chehalem Mountain AVA, the wine offers ripe pear and floral aromas with stone fruit and pear flavors.

·         Pagos de Galir Godello 2017 ($17). You all need to drink more godello. From the Valdeorras region of Spain, godello is similar in style to chardonnay with a smooth, delicious texture but a different profile. Floral and fruity with notes of apples and white peaches with a dash of raisins and lime.


The beauty of syrah even if it is shiraz; Siduri pinot noirs and more

(July 20, 2019)


There was once a time in our life when it seemed like all we were drinking were wines from Australia – shiraz, viognier, chardonnay, grenache and even cabernet sauvignon. Alas, we have drifted away from this wonderful fountain of fun wines.  

The U.S. is Australia’s second largest customer in the world market. Not only are American consumers enamored by those critter labels, but they like the price of most Australian wines.  Although premium wines like Penfold’s Grange can cost more than $400 a bottle, many of the wines from this continent are well under $15. 

Inexpensive shiraz (syrah in other regions) is popular, but there are many premium red wines that are worth exploring on occasion. We just tasted several powerful wines from Vintage Longbottom Henry’s Drive in Adelaide Hills that impressed us.  These full-bodied wines need cellaring; if you can’t wait 8-10 years at least aerate these wines before serving them. 

Kim Longbottom and her late husband David released their first Henry’s Drive wines in 1998. Although her husband died in 2008, she remained focused on building the brand. She also makes premium wines from McLaren Vale. “Henry” is Henry John Hill who operated a horse-drawn mail and passenger coach service in the 19th century. 

The 2017 Henry’s Drive Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon blend ($60) is a fruit-forward, dense and inky wine with raspberry and cranberry notes, a minty nose and hints of spice.  

We also liked the unblended 2017 Henry’s Drive Shiraz ($60), an equally dense wine but with blackberry and plum flavors with floral and mint aromas.  

If you like concentrated and complex shiraz, Vintage Longbottom steps it up to an ultra-premium label with the 2017 Henry’s Drive Magnus Shiraz ($80). 

The best value is the 2017 “H” Syrah ($40), which is still sporting fine tannins but brighter fruit of cherries and plums.  It’s odd to us that Longbottom calls this one by its French name “syrah,” but we guess it’s a way to separate it from the premium wines. 

Here are some less expensive shirazes that deliver a lot for the money. 

·         Yalumba Barossa Shiraz 2017 ($21). Blackberry and cherry flavors mingle with forest floor and spice with a dash of anise. Soft mouthfeel. 

·         Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Barossa Valley Shiraz 2017 ($30). Plum and herbal notes dominate this balanced shiraz.  

·         Torbreck Woodcutter’s Shiraz 2017 ($25). Layer black fruit aromas with a hint of licorice and mint. Flavors are reminiscent of juicy plums and black berries with a subtle dash of smoke and vanilla. 

Siduri pinot noirs 

We recently had the opportunity to blind taste three 2017 pinot noirs from Siduri. Each were made by winemaker Adam Lee but from different California appellations. It was interesting to taste the differences.  

Adam Lee and Diana Novy Lee founded Siduri in 1994 and have established a reputation for fairly priced, well-made pinot noir from what are currently 20 different separately bottled sites. Jackson Family Wines purchased Siduri in 2015, retaining Lee as winemaker. The purchase gave Siduri access to the vast Jackson Family vineyard sources in both Oregon and California. 

Tasting the three pinot noirs proved a challenge. Each appellation expressed subtle but readily apparent differences.  Stretching along the Pacific Coast, the three regions were cool climates: Oregon’s Willamette Valley, California’s Sonoma’s County Russian River Valley and most southernmost in California, Santa Barbara County. Pinot noir loves climates that cool off the grapes after a day of blistering sun because the growing season is slow and extended. 

We guessed the Siduri Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2017 ($30) because it was the lightest of the three samples. The Willamette Valley pinot noir exhibited sour cherry and rhubarb notes with a hint of spice and balanced acidity. Overall a lighter version would pair well with tuna and salmon dishes.  

Parsing the difference between the Russian River Valley pinot noir and the Santa Barbara version proved more difficult. We guessed wrong between the two California selections. The Siduri Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2017 ($35) presented very ripe cherry fruit with cherry cola notes and the least acidity of the three samples. Overall, the Russian River Valley was the simplest of the three samples with the least apparent tannins. 

Our favorite of the tasting was the Siduri Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County 2017 ($35). Wild cherry and plum flavors dominated the nose and mouth with some interesting spice elements. There was a bit more acidity than the Russian River Valley pinot noir that created a bit more interest along with the abundant fruit. 

Siduri also makes a full-throttle Edmeades Pinot Noir 2017 ($50) that abounds in dark berry flavors. Lee uses grapes from the Pommard clone and exposes half of them to whole-cluster fermentation. 

Wine picks 

·         Etude Grace Carneros Pinot Gris 2018 ($30). Crafted from grapes grown in the estate’s Grace Benoist Ranch vineyard, this classic pinot gris offers pear and apricot notes with a hint of spice and lime. Balanced acidity makes it a great match to summer fare.  

·         Peter Zemmer Pinot Grigio Reserva “Giatl” 2016 ($38). You don’t often see a reserve pinot grigio – perhaps because it is an oxymoron or, more likely, no one wants to pay this kind of money for pinot grigio. However, it demonstrates what can be done with pinot grigio.  This gem comes from the best 6 acres of a 24-acre vineyard. A small amount of this wine is made for adoring audiences who enjoy the golden color, lush palate and oak-inspired flavors. Pear aromas with juicy tropical fruit flavors. 

·         Girard Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($24).  Pear and peach notes feature this lush and textured chardonnay. Hints of butterscotch, mineral and crème brulee highlight a well-oaked wine for those who love an oaky style of chardonnay. 

Germany: See the vineyards, understand the wine

(July 13, 2019)


German wines have always been a jigsaw puzzle for us to put together. Confusing categories ranging from dry to sweet, names hard to pronounce and varying degrees of quality have challenged us to both understand the wines and then like them. Their absence on store shelves and many wine lists indicates we’re not the only ones who find German wines an enigma. 

Tom was able to add a couple of pieces to the puzzle during a recent river cruise along the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Vineyards planted on incredibly steep mountainsides in this cool northern region show the difficulty wine producers face to make decent wines. The Bremmer-Calmont vineyard on the Moselle River, for instance, is the steepest in the world at 65 degrees. Pickers defy death every day they take to these vineyards, which not surprisingly has one of the highest fatality rates in the world.  

Because mechanical harvesting is impossible under these conditions, man hours spent in the vineyards are seven times higher than in the flatter lands of Bordeaux. Tom saw a hodge-podge of vertically and horizontally planted vines as if the growers weren’t sure which pattern was safer to harvest. The vines planted vertically on these steep mountainsides are not trained on wire to allow workers to safely cross horizontally between plants.  In some vineyards, a mechanical cart on tracks help to transport grapes to pick-up spots on roads above the vineyards. How these vineyards survive the erosion that must come in heavy rainfalls is mystifying.  

It’s not as if the Germans haven’t had time to figure this out.  Romans planted vines in the 1st century AD to stock their garrisons with local wine instead of transporting it from Italy or Spain. Still, there isn’t much you can do about the terrain. No wonder the Germans wanted Alsace so bad in its war with the French. They crossed the relatively narrow Rhine River to occupy Alsace four times and slake their thirst for the drier French wines using the same grape varieties. 

The visit to these beautiful vineyards was an important piece of the puzzle, but hardly the only one. Grapes grown on these terrains have a hard time fully ripening, which means the wines are often low in alcohol and body. But the primary attribute of its prize variety – riesling – is its finesse. What sacrifice the wines make in body, they soar with intensity and elegance.  

More than half of the wines made here are riesling. Although the Germans have made progress with their red spatburgunder made from pinot noir, it hasn’t achieved any notable success in our opinion. 

Alas, Germany’s wine industry struggles to shed an image that up until the 1990s was associated with the likes of liebfraumilch, sweet and mass-produced dreck that led to many college hangovers. But even after focusing attention on quality, German wines struggle to gain shelf position in this country.  Go into any store any you’ll see more rieslings from the West Coast than Germany even though the U.S. is one of Germany‘s best wine markets. 

If growing grapes in this region isn’t challenging enough, producers struggle to educate the public about its unique styles. Spatlese means late harvest but they are typically semi-sweet and riper than Kabinett.  Auslese means “select harvest,” but are sweet enough to classify as dessert wines. Let’s not even go into beerenauslese and trockenbeerenaulese. 

Still, find a dry or semi-dry riesling made in the hands of a producer who strives for quality and you’ll be immensely rewarded. Those made by Egon Müller, Weingut Keller, and Erben Thanisch, for instance, are good examples.  A good riesling will have powerful, stone fruit aromas, apple and pear flavors, good acidity and minerality. They are great matches with delicate fish, quail, and apple-based appetizers.  We particularly like to use riesling in sauces associated with cornish hens. 

However much more we understand about these intriguing wines, we remain challenged to get guests to like them.  Maybe they’re looking for pieces to the puzzle too. 

Mount Peak 

Many vineyard operations were lost to Prohibition. One was Mount Peak, a winery built in 1886 high atop the Mayacamas mountain range. Mount Peak was one of the top 10 producers in California when Prohibition forced them to close. Since then, the ghost vineyards have been smothered by weeds and brush. However, in recent years they were rescued by the Gallo family. 

The wines we tasted from this property were incredible – what you expect from mountain-grown fruit from the Monte Rosso vineyard. The initial 2014 of the Mount Peak Sentinel Cabernet Sauvignon was winemaker Mark Williams’ debut. But the 2015 showed a big step up in concentration and integration.  At $60, it isn’t cheap but we’ve seen a lot of less worthy wines for much more money. 

The grapes come from Napa and Sonoma county because the vineyards straddle those two regions.  

These wines are gaining high scores from top critics and we understand why.  The 2015 is a muscular wine with firm tannins that beg for cellaring. Lush lavender and black cherry aromas with layered dark fruit flavors and hints of spice and caramel. 

Mount Peak also produces a full-body Gravity Red Blend ($45) of eight red varietals, including petite sirah, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon. Inky color with loads of jammy blackberry and blueberry flavors. 

Wine picks 

·         Mi Sueno Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($75). This iconic wine from Rolando Herrera clearly is fit for a cellar, but it’s also a wine that despite its complexity and tannin can be enjoyed without further aging.  Deep in color it has firm tannins, black cherry and plum aromas with hints of chocolate and anise. 

·         Pagos de Galir Mencia 2016 ($17). We just loved this northern Spanish wine made entirely from mencia grapes. Plump, ripe flavors reminiscent of plums with an earthy mouthfeel and hints of chocolate. Simple but perfect for barbecued food. 

·         Niner Wine Estates Grenache Blanc Reserve Paso Robles Heart Hill Vineyard 2017 ($30). Grenache blanc is an essential building block in many Southern Rhone wines. From an estate vineyard only two acres in size the fruit from this source has produced a wonderful white wine that exhibits a honeyed fat and rich experience in the mouth, almost like a semillon-based wine but with more acidity. Maybe more winemakers should consider this grape. 

Is it time for wine to get canned?

(July 6, 2019)


We once thought that canned wines would be a fad enjoyed only by a handful of people more focused on convenience than quality. Generally, that still may be true, but several quality producers – Sterling, Coppola, Bonterra, Ste. Michelle Estates – have raised the bar ever so slightly.

Canned wines represent only one percent of the wine market, but sales are growing.  Wine Spectator reports can sales are up nearly 70 percent in the United States.  Are people shifting? Not really. The traditional wine package added screw tops decades ago. Then there were boxes, kegs and now cans. It’s all about marketing innovation.

Bottles always have been challenges for people on boats and picnics because they are unwieldy and subject to breakage. Plus, bottles don’t always fit into coolers and you need cups or glasses. You also are stuck with, say, a pinot noir or a chardonnay.  With cans, you can bring a variety, chill them in a cooler, and eliminate the cups.  And they are great if you can’t finish a bottle. Now that there is some quality wine behind the names, cans present a reasonable option if you’re looking for a basic wine to drink with sandwiches, pasta or other picnic fare.

But lest you think drinking wine from a can is a phenomenal wine experience, think again. We tried nearly 20 canned wines and it was hard to ignore the taste of aluminum. Added to the off-flavors is that you’re mind wants to drink canned wine like you drink canned soda or canned beer – with gulps, not sips. The solution to this head game is to pour the wine in a glass or cup. But that defeats the convenience of a can, doesn’t it?

If you can will yourself to sip from a can, look out. A 375ml can is a half of a bottle of wine at 12.5 percent alcohol by volume; beer is about 5 percent ABV.  You’re going to feel the effects of alcohol pretty quickly if you drink a can of wine like you drink a can of beer.

Perhaps for that reason, many producers have gone to a smaller can. There is a 187ml can that is about a fourth of a bottle of wine and a 250ml can that is about a third of a bottle.

For us the can experience makes wine just another alcoholic beverage. We’d rather take a bottle of Provence rosé to a picnic and live with its inconvenience. The sound of a cork beats the sound of pulling back a flip tab.

Having said all of this, we were impressed with several canned wines when we drank them from a glass. Here are a few recommendations:

·         The Family Coppola Sofia Mini Blanc de Blancs ($5/187ml).  Coppola makes good wine at all levels and this sparkling wine made from pinot blanc, riesling and muscat grapes is an enjoyable way to celebrate life alone without having to open an entire bottle.

·         The Family Coppola Sofia Rosé ($20/four-pack/187ml). Syrah, grenache and pinot noir are blended in this crisp, strawberry-like rosé.

·         Underwood Pinot Noir ($28/four-pack, 375ml). From the Umpqua Valley region of Oregon, this light-bodied pinot noir has strawberry and cherry flavors with a touch of herbs.

·         Prophecy Sauvignon Blanc ($10/2-pack, 250 ml).  This producer wins first place for the best-looking can. And what’s inside is good too. We liked this New Zealand sauvignon blanc for its varietal grapefruit and lychee flavors. We also liked the pinot noir from this producer.

·         Oregon White Pinot Gris ($7/375 ml). Peach and mango flavors.

·         Dark Horse Pinot Noir ($50/12-pack/375ml). Simple black cherry flavors with a touch of herbs.

·         Sterling Chardonnay ($7.50/375ml). Nice and clean apple flavors in a beautifully shaped bottle.

Wine picks

·         Legacy Chardonnay 2015 ($75). Jess Jackson established this label in 1990 to take wine quality to a new level. Using top-shelf grapes grown 1,600 feet up the Alexander Mountain Estate, Legacy is complex and rich in style. Very aromatic with a silky texture and tropical fruit notes.

·         Grounded Wine Co. Steady State Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($65). A product of Josh Phelps and Steph Slaughter, this new blend uses all of the Bordeaux grape varieties to make a colossal, well-structured wine with a floral and mature nose and cherry flavors with hints of currants and herbs.

·         Renzo Masi Erta e China Rosso di Toscana 2017 ($16). The name meaning ascent and descent in Italian symbolizes the pattern of the vines that resemble the spokes of a wheel. An even blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon, this uncomplicated super Tuscan wine has forward black cherry and herbal notes. A delicious wine to enjoy with grilled foods, pasta and pizza.

·         Peachy Canyon Paso Robles Petite Sirah 2016 ($36). A soaring star in the petite sirah world, this inky and hedonistic wine abounds in fruit flavors of plums and blackberries with a delicate hint of anise. 

·         Légende St. Emilion 2016 ($45).  A product of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), this knock off is worth the money. Merlot accounts for 85 percent of the wine with cabernet franc making up the difference.  Cherry and blueberry flavors with soft tannins makes it a simple, quaffable wine.  The 2015 Légende Paulliac ($55) is dominated by cabernet sauvigon with the balance made up of merlot. Both are good wines that don’t require a lot of aging.

The wines of Jermann

(July 1, 2019)


When most wine enthusiasts think of Italy, they think of Tuscany. But there are so many other wine regions that produce interesting wines from grape varieties other than Tuscany’s ubiquitous sangiovese.

One of those regions is Fruili-Venezia-Giulia in the northeastern corner of Italy. We met up with Aloiz “Felix” Jermann who told us more about the area and his family’s wines.

The Jermann family winery is located in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, hard against the border with Austria to the north and Slovenia to the west. Languages in this area vary from the traditional native Italian to German and Slovenian. Before World War I this portion of Italy was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and dominated by German language and culture.

Felix is the 22-year-old son of Silvio Jermann, the first in the family to bottle their wines instead of selling them in bulk to a few local customers. He is the producer’s international communications manager and travels the world for the family winery. He speaks several languages fluently including nearly perfect English.

We were impressed with the quality of the Jermann Pinot Grigio Friuli 2017 ($24). A good bit of the pinot grigio that originates from the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region of Italy is pleasant but fairly undistinguished as it is meant to satisfy budget conscious wine drinkers at $10 a bottle. The Jermann wines are all estate produced including the pinot grigio, which offered a good bit of complexity and depth of flavor to justify the more robust pricing level.

Jermann said the wine is produced in all stainless steel and spends four months of lees contact to get deeper and richer flavors than most run-of the-mill equivalent pinot grigio. Jermann also said that they harvest some grapes early to “pick up acidity and develop the nose” of the wine.

We also experienced a unique Jermann Sauvignon Blanc Friuli IGT 2016 ($30). This is not your typical grapefruity, herbal and acidic sauvignon blanc that seems to be all the rage today. The Jermann version presents ripe pear and floral notes in a soft and easy to drink package, exhibiting an elegant creamy finish. No oak -- just extended lees contact.

The vast majority of wine produced in the world today is meant to be drunk upon release or over a couple of years at best. Some red wines will age and improve over time, however only a rare few white wines will develop in a positive way. Surprisingly the signature wine for Jermann --  the Vintage Tunina -- is a white blend that, according to Jermann, can and should age for 10 years to achieve maximum enjoyment.

He offered us two examples of the Jermann Vintage Tunina vintages -- 2015 and 2012 -- just to prove the point. The 2015 Jermann Vintage Tunina Friuli-Venezia-Giulia IGT ($77) is the 40th vintage of this Italian white wine that has won numerous awards internationally. Crafted from a field blend of 50 percent sauvignon blanc and chardonnay and smaller percentages of ribolla gialla, malvasia, and a indigenous local varietal picolit, all harvested from a single vineyard on the same day. Some of this white wine is aged in Slovenian oak to round out the blend.

The 2015 Vintage Tunina is somewhat closed but shows hints of the underlying elegance and fruit in the blend. Jermann said that 2015 was a very good vintage which needs time.

The 2012 Jermann Vintage Tunina Friuli-Venezia-Giulia IGT, on the other hand, is currently unavailable but illustrates the aging potential of Vintage Tunina for the patient consumer. This seven-year-old wine has developed a very rich mouth filling elegant experience with pear and some orange notes. This is an amazing wine that illustrates and justifies the international reputation of Jermann’s Vintage Tunina.


·         Chalone Vineyards Estate Chenin Blanc 2017 ($31). From a vineyard originally planted in 1919, this amazing chenin blanc is the best we have ever tasted. This is a full, rich and ripe drinking experience with ripe peach and pear elements as well as a bare hint of mocha of all things. Unfortunately, only 200 cases were made so be patient sourcing this amazing find.                                                                

·         Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2014 ($52). The Gran Selezione is only produced in the best of years from selected hand harvested parcels. This is a very good example of the best Chianti Classico from Tuscany. Dried cherries and plum notes are expressed in the mouth with a hint of mature oak. Very smooth and easy to drink now but has the potential for some aging.                                     

·         Murphy-Goode Red Wine California 2015 ($14). This is a real user-friendly red wine. Made up of 50 percent zinfandel and 36 percent syrah along with a smattering of six other red grapes, this wine delivers a bold, mouth-filling experience that over delivers for the price with luscious cherry, raspberry and blueberry flavors.                           

·         Zonin Prosecco DOC Cuvee 1821 Brut N/V ($14). In the ocean of inexpensive proseccos, this good value from Zonin stands out with a bright fruity style, ample froth, and an easy to drink style.   

·         Villa San-Juliette Chorum VSJ Red Wine Paso Robles 2016 ($30). This might be a bit difficult to find due to small production, but it will be worth the effort. A perfect bold styled red wine crafted from a mix of Rhone and Bordeaux red varietals. Bold fruit flavors of blackberry and black raspberry come to mind when tasting this barbecue friendly wine.   

·         Ryder Estate Pinot Noir Central Coast 2017 ($18). A great value-oriented pinot noir that actually tastes like pinot noir and not generic red wine. Cherries, plums and mocha notes dominate this medium bodied fruit forward quaffable pinot noir.                                                                                                                   

Summer is great time for champagne

(June 25, 2019)



Champagne sales have enjoyed seven years of steady growth with the U.S. sitting in the second spot of bottles sold worldwide behind the United Kingdom. Among champagne producers, Moet & Chandon is the industry leader worldwide -- they trail Veuve Clicquot in the U.S. market. 

Owned by LVDH, Moet & Chandon is celebrating the 150th anniversary of their ubiquitous and best-selling Imperial Brut this year. Imperial Brut is the upgraded successor to the retired White Star brand that was marketed in the U.S. for many years. Slightly drier, the Imperial Brut offers a moderately priced introduction to real French champagne.  

Although international accords have outlawed the use of the descriptor champagne to any sparkling wines produced outside the defined Champagne region, Americans still routinely use the term to describe any sparkling wine. 

We recently met with Marie-Christine Osselin, quality director for Moet & Chandon, to learn more about the venerable champagne house and to taste some of their products.  

Moet & Chandon farms about 3,200 acres of estate grapes, meeting about 25 percent of its needs while contracting with 500 growers for the balance of their grape requirements. The growers supply clarified juice to Moet & Chandon to begin the wine making process.  

Tasting the raw juice is the first step conducted by the Moet & Chandon’s 10 winemakers and Marie-Christine Osselin to decide the blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay that ultimately create the final champagne. Moet & Chandon only uses stainless steel in the winemaking process so as to protect the “fresh fruit impression of natural grapes,” according to Ms. Osselin.  

The complex nose and flavors of Moet & Chandon’s champagne originate from this fresh juice and aging on the lees to create this very attractive beverage, no wood needed.  

We were very impressed with the quality of Moet & Chandon’s champagnes and following are our tasting notes. 

Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut ($40-60) is the producer’s flagship champagne. It is made up of 30-40 percent each of pinot noir and pinot meunier with the balance chardonnay created from over 100 base wines of which 20-30 percent are reserve wines. Ripe apple and pear notes dominate with a distinct lees note to add complexity. Great by itself or as an accompaniment to many foods that traditionally match with white wine. 

Moet & Chandon Rose Imperial Brut N/V ($50-70) is made up of mostly pinot noir (40-50 percent) with 30-40 percent pinot meunier and 10-20 percent chardonnay. The pink color comes from the addition of a bit of still red wine made from the pinot noir and pinot meunier. A slightly bolder champagne than the Imperial Brut with a distinctive note of cherries accenting the base champagne. Very appealing and a match for bolder cuisine.  

Moet & Chandon just released a new vintage champagne along with a rosé version to succeed the currently available 2009 vintage. According to Osselin, the terrible 2012 growing year was afflicted with frost, hail, and too much rain. A hot dry August saved the vintage, although yielding 40 percent fewer grapes than normal.  

The 2012 Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage ($80-$100) is drier than the Imperial Brut and spent 5 years on the lees and, according to Osselin, it should age and gain complexity for the same number of years as it spent on the le -- about 5-7 years. Very fresh and delicate, it is 41 percent chardonnay, 33 percent pinot noir and 26 percent pinot meunier.  

The 2012 Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage Rosé ($85-$105) again is also drier than the Imperial brut rosé and exhibits a nice fruitiness with light cherry notes. 

We also sampled the 2002 Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage Collection ($140 approximately). Majority chardonnay (51 percent) with 26 percent pinot noir and 23 percent pinot meunier. Just disgorged in 2017, this incredible champagne spent 15 years on its lees! Amazing complexity with an enticing mature nose with deep fruity flavors and baked apple dominating on the palate.  


Summer is a great time to enjoy sparkling wine and champagne, especially if there is something to celebrate. Here are some other bubblies we recommend: 

·         Champagne Palmer & Co. Brut Reserve ($60). Year after year this Champagne house produces reliable wines. This non-vintage brut reserve has pear and citrus notes. It spends four years on the lees. 

·         Piper-Heidsieck Champagne Brut ($45). Dominated by about 60 percent pinot noir, this lovely champagne offers abundant fruit with pear and citrus elements. A relative bargain price for classy champagne.                    

·         Volage Cremant de Loire Rosé ($30). From the Loire Valley of France, this unique sparkling wine is made from cabernet franc grapes and has fresh strawberry and raspberry flavors. 

·         Sea Smoke Sea Spray 2014 ($80). This vintage sparkling wine is made entirely from estate-grown pinot noir grapes grown in Santa Rita Hills. Complex with fresh pear flavors and a dash of minerality. Lots of finesse. 

·         Scharffenberger Brut Rosé Excellence ($30). From California’s Anderson Valley, this reasonably priced sparkling wine shows off strawberry and raspberry flavors and balanced acidity.  


·         Hess Select Pinot Noir Central Coast 2016 ($20). This is an outstanding pinot noir for the price. Deep rich ripe cherry notes dominate this 100 percent pinot noir with a distinctive hint of violets and spice. Pinot noir lovers take notice.                             

·          Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast 2015 ($20). Another value from the Hess family this cabernet sauvignon presents as a medium bodied food wine that should match up with most red meat or even poultry dishes well. Blackberry and cherry dominate this 79 percent cabernet sauvignon blend that also includes petite sirah, malbec, syrah, merlot and zinfandel.                                                                                     

·         A. P. Vin Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Rosella’s Vineyard 2014 ($49). This pinot noir is a classy deep and rich bold style red wine that features plum, cherry cola and root beer notes. Full bodied and fantastic! 

The intriguing wines from Alentejo region

(June 17, 2019)


For years this country was denied access to a variety of wines because getting them to the United States was fraught with problems relating to preservation and cost. But the invention of refrigeration and faster travel ushered in wines from remote regions just waiting to be discovered. Even after writing about these regions for more than three decades, we are still covering new ones.

Our most recent discovery is the Alentejo (Ah-len-TAY-zhoo) wine-growing region of interior Portugal. 

More than 250 grape varieties are grown in Portugal but the primary red grape grown in Alentejo is alicante bouschet, an incredibly dark grape that is so bold and powerful it can temporarily stain your teeth – like petite sirah. A cross between grenache and petit bouschet, it is also grown in France and Spain where it is primarily a blending grape.

If you like inky, full-bodied red wines with tannin and muscle, these are must-try wines.

Located in a dry climate in southern Portugal, the vineyards of Alentejo soak up the sun to produce grapes with thick skins. Fruit forward in style and low in acidity, the flavors are typically jammy. Although the tannins indicate they can be aged, they are delicious to drink now alongside a big steak or even some barbecued ribs.

Here are several we recently tasted:

·         Herdade de Sao Miguel Alicante Bouschet 2015 ($23). Vibrant red fruit, soft mouthfeel and hints of smoke.  The grapes natural tannins are more moderate in this elegant and forward wine.

·         Rocim Alicante Bouschet 2016 ($20). Spicy plum and blackberry fruit flavors with a nice mineral thread.  Elegant.

·         Herdade dos Grous Moon Harvested 2017 ($25). The grapes are harvested when the moon exerts its greatest pull, for whatever that means. Fermented in traditional lagares and aged in French oak.  Lots of forward, ripe black cherry flavors.

·         Dona Maria Grand Reserva 2012 ($45). The additional bottle age has presumably tamed the tannins a bit. Still a big wine with mouth-puckering tannins, it is blended with petit verdot, syrah and the indigenous touriga nacional grapes.

·         Moucho Red 2013 ($60). This colossal wine demonstrates how full-bodied and ageworthy these wines can be. Made only in exceptional years, this single-vineyard wine has dark, spicy fruit is aged in large wooden vats made from Portuguese oak, mahogany and macacauba (Brazilian hardwood). Grapes are foot-trodden twice a day in stone tanks.

Although 80 percent of the wines from this region are red, Alentejo does produce white wines known for their crisp acidity and unique flavors. More than 200 indigenous grape varieties are grown in this region, so don’t expect to recognize them.

We were impressed with several blends that use the antao vaz grape as its foundation. These wines are fermented in stainless steel to keep them light and fresh, perfect for summer drinking.

·         Herdade do Rocim Mariana Branco 2917 ($13). Generous lychee nut aromas and tropical fruit, and orange rind flavors with a dash of mineral. Antao vaz is blended with arinto and alvarino grapes.

·         Malhadinha Antao Vaz da Peceguina 2016 ($25). Made entirely from antao vaz grapes, this lively summer wine is medium body with pineapple and orange peel flavors. Mineral notes in the background and generous aromas.


McDonald “Don” Blackburn loved his Burgundy pinot noirs after studying and working there for many years. When he returned to the United States, he wanted to recreate those expressive pinot noirs and teamed up with Brice Cutrer Jones, who was turning orchards into vineyards in the Russian River Valley. The first release of this effort, Emeritus Vineyards, came in 1999. Blackburn died in 2008 and today the wines are made by David Lattin and the property is operated by the founder’s daughter, Mari.

We recently tasted the new releases from this property and were impressed with their Burgundy-like character.

Our favorite was the 2016 Emeritus Vineyard Hallberg Ranch Pinot Noir. At $44 is a relative bargain in the expensive pinot noir field. It has the elegance of burgundy plus the pure, young fruit character of black cherries.

The Pinot Hill West and Pinot Hill East show at $75 each are more complex and show a depth of character found in classic California pinot noir.

The full-bodied 2016 Emeritus Vineyard Wesley’s Reserve ($75) has chewy tannins to give it some texture to match the blackberry and black cherry flavors.


·         Cantos de Valpiedra 2013 ($15).  This is a very rich and delicious tempranillo from Rioja that coats the mouth with black cherry and plum flavors. A touch of vanilla and spice from the 24 months in spends in American and French oak barrels.

·         Eberle Cotes-du-Robles 2017 ($30). We enjoyed this youthful blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre and durif – common grapes found in France’s Cotes-du-Rhone wines. This version from California’s Paso Robles region has pure fruit flavors redolent of plums and raspberries.

·         Gamble Family Vineyards “Heartblock” Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($90). It’s rare to see a sauvignon blanc at this price, but Tom Gamble takes the grape variety to a new level. It is more complex and concentrated than your average sauvignon blanc.

·         Our Daily Cab California Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($12).  If you object to sulfites, a preservative, in your wine, then try this tasty treat. Simple but loaded with upfront, ripe plum flavors and vanilla.


Dad wants something besides a tie

(June 10, 2019)


Buying an expensive wine as a gift is a challenge for many people. If you can get past the cost of a wine that cost more than $100 and lasts a couple of hours at best, there’s the hurdle of which wine to buy. It’s not as if one size fits all. Some people are allergic to red wine, others hate tannic wines while there are those that drink nothing but chardonnay.

So, here we are a few days away from Father’s Day when a bottle of wine has replaced the tie as the most likely gift to be enjoyed. By the way, a tie can cost $85 or more – you can get a great wine for that price.  Dad may be wild and crazy guy, but that doesn’t mean he will wear a tie with pink flamingoes to the office. Buy the wine and share the cost with siblings.

Before you open the wallet wide, consider your recipient’s tastes. If his favorite wine is pinot grigio, you’re not going to find anything expensive or high in quality. We know this sounds pompous, but omeone who enjoys simple wines isn’t going to appreciate an expensive one. Most likely, he’s going to hate it. Buy the tie.

But if dad collects wine or has developed an appreciation for better quality wines, by all means give him that expensive Bordeaux or the cult cabernet sauvignon from California. Give him a wine that he wouldn’t buy because he’d feel guilty spending the money.

We’ve gotten such gifts on other occasions and we can’t tell you how much we appreciated the gesture. It didn’t take long to research the wine and discover the cost. While we appreciate the inexpensive wine, too, we know the sacrifice someone made to buy us something special. Of course, we make sure they are there when we open it.

Many of the special wines we list below require time to appreciate. Don’t be disappointed if dad doesn’t drink them right away – he may be waiting for the right moment or waiting for the wine to mature. If you want to help in the research, give him a nicely packaged bottle with some background material about its origin, how it was made and what the critics say about it.

Here are some suggestions:

·         Cliff Lede Vineyards “Moon Fantasy” 2015 ($110). Cliff Lede loves Bordeaux but he also loves rock music – each of his vineyards is named after a favorite song and the collection of his lux wines is called the “rock block” series.  This wine from the Stag’s Leap District comes from the Dark Side of the Moon block (Pink Floyd) and Dear Mr. Fantasy (Traffic). It’s a colossal yet elegant cabernet sauvignon with an enticing floral bouquet and a lush blackberry and cassis flavor profile. Maybe for the rock-star dad?

·         Tenuta Luce 2015 ($135).  It’s impossible stopping at one glass of this hedonistic super-Tuscan blend of sangiovese and merlot. Generous berry and spice aromas mingle nicely with a round ripe dark berry flavor.  Full bodied and complex, like that Italian father who thinks all good wines come from Italy.

·         Frank Family Vineyards Patriarch Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($225). Yeah, the price is not a typo. But we have to mention it because “patriarch” is fitting and the wine is ridiculously good. Named after Rich Frank’s late father who was on Omaha Beach five days after D-Day, the wine is made entirely from cabernet sauvignon grown in the owner’s hillside estate vineyard in Rutherford. Hy Frank would be proud. So would your speechless dad he if got a bottle.

·         Sea Smoke “Ten” Pinot Noir 2016 ($82).  An iconic wine from the Sta. Rita H ills AVA, this concentrated pinot noir has layers of blueberry and black cherry flavors with hints of lavender on the nose and firm tannins that begs for time in the cellar. For the father who likes his pinots.

·         Flora Springs Trilogy Red Wine Napa Valley 2016 ($85). This Bordeaux style red blend is crafted from Flora Springs Estate Vineyards. This elegant blend features notes of cassis, cedar and graphite in a delicious mélange of cabernet sauvignon, petite verdot and malbec. For the impatient father who can’t wait for a wine to age.

·         Gamble Family Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($60). The winemaker draws from eight vineyards to come up with this dense and complex wine with earthy flavors and easy tannins. For the father who likes to gamble?

·         Legacy Chardonnay 2015 ($75). A fulfilled dream of Jess Jackson to make an age-worthy chardonnay from his Stonestreet Estate Winery, this chardonnay is a quixotic blend of power and finesse. Using hand-selected grapes grown on high grounds, it has great structure and generous aromas. If your father likes chardonnay, this would be a treat for him.

·         Rombauer Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($65). Rombauer chardonnay is the darling of restaurants and many consumers, but the producer’s sturdy and dense cabernet is overlooked. Broad palate of red fruit flavors, supple but generous tannins, full body and hints of cedar and vanilla. This wine can easily age for a decade but is showing well now.


Here is a collection of gift suggestions from J. Lohr that cost a bit less.  The trio is cabernet-based with a focus on Paulliac, Pomerol and St. Emilion.

·         J. Lohr Cuvee PAU 2015 ($50). True to Pauillac, this blend leans on cabernet sauvignon with some petit verdot, merlot and malbec tossed in. Rich and ripe blackberries and plums with a touch of forest floor and mineral.

·         J. Lohr Cuvee POM 2015 ($50). Pomerol depends more on merlot as the foundation of its wine with just a little malbec and cabernet sauvignon. Plum flavors dominate the palate with hints of dark chocolate.

·         J. Lohr Cuvee St. E 2015 ($50). Cabernet franc makes up 80 percent of this blend with cabernet sauvignon adding the rest. Nice texture and broad expression of ripe plum and blueberry notes with a dash of coffee and firm tannins to give it body.

Wines to offset that summer heat

(June 3, 2019)


Now that the temperatures have turned a corner for many of you in four-season states, thoughts turn to summer wines to enjoy on the patio or boat. We’re talking sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, pinot gris, riesling, viognier and the like.

Wines such as sauvignon blanc have the crisp acidity to marry well with fresh produce coming into season. Usually dry and free of oak, sauvignon blanc can range in style from the grassy New Zealand version to the softer, grapefruit dominant wines from the West Coast. They are great sippers but also go well with herb-based sauces.

Another favorite at this time of the year is pinot grigio, which also has a range in style of sweetness. We like the drier versions because they do much better with food. Acidity can balance the sweetness yet retain the fruit character, but not all pinot grigio producers do that.

Pinot gris is another name for pinot grigio, but pinot blanc is a distant cousin.

Burn the socks and enjoy these 12 interesting white wines to get you into the mood:

·         Chalone Chenin Blanc 2017 ($40).  Chenin blanc is the grape variety most often associated with Vouvray in France, but other countries, including South Africa, have been making their own versions. This one from Chalone is very special and remarkable. Using grapes planted by a French immigrant 100 years ago, Chalone has crafted a tantalizing wine redolent of apple, pear and tangerine flavors. There is a good dose of mineral and acidity to keep the wine crisp and just slightly sweet.

·         Swanson Vineyards Pinot Grigio 2018 ($19). We loved this balanced and fruity pinot grigio from the San Benito region of California. Lots of pear, peach and apricot flavors with a dash of citrus and good acidity to keep the sugar in check.

·         Santa Cristina Pinot Grigio 2018 ($12). We liked this wine from Antinori because it had green apple and pineapple notes instead of the ripe stone fruit notes associated with many pinot grigios.

·         Eberle Winery Cotes-du-Robles Blanc 2018 ($24). Using grenache blanc, roussanne and viognier grapes, this take-off on Cotes du Rhone is from the Paso Robles region of California. This dry wine is refreshing with bright acidity and sporting pear and stone fruit flavors.

·         Chehalem Three Vineyards Pinot Gris 2016 ($20). Generous floral and ginger aromas are chased by a racy peach and apricot flavors with hints of spice and lemongrass. The crisp acidity balances out the fruity character of the grape variety and makes for an excellent match to seafood and fowl

·         Beckmen Vineyards Cuvee le Bec Santa Ynez Valley 2017 ($25). Beckmen uses red Rhone grape varieties and whole cluster fermentation to create a refreshing, brisk melange of black fruit flavors and aromas of lavender and licorice.

·         Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier 2017 ($21). This highly aromatic and refreshing viognier comes from Australia’s Eden Valley. Stone fruit permeates the aromas and flavors.

·         Santa Barbara Winery Riesling Santa Rita Hills Lafond Vineyard 2016 ($17). This is a very reasonably priced, food-friendly white wine that drinks a bit off dry to balance riesling’s natural high acidity. Smooth delivery features a peach nose and flavors and a nice smooth finish.

·         Bouchard Pere & Fils Pouilly-Fuisse 2017 ($30). French wine for less than $50? This is a delightful white chardonnay from the Macon region of France. Very clean and refreshing with apple notes and a mineral edge. Ready to drink now

·         Cedar + Salmon Wilamette Valley Pinot Gris 2018 ($19). We liked the fresh acidity and pure fruit flavors of this Oregon pinot gris.  Stone fruit flavors with a hint of lemon and mineral.

·         Pierre Spar Pinot Blanc Reserve 2016 ($17).  Peach and granny apple flavors with a dash of spice and beautiful mineral notes. Good acidity and long on the palate. The additional bottle age mellows out this terrific wine.

·         Peter Zemmer Pinot Grigio Reserva “Giatl” 2016 ($38). You don’t often see a reserve pinot grigio – perhaps because it is an oxymoron or, more likely, no one wants to pay this kind of money for pinot grigio. However, it demonstrates what can be done with pinot grigio.  This gem comes from the best 6 acres of a 24-acre vineyard. A small amount of this wine is made for adoring audiences who enjoy the golden color, lush palate and oak-inspired flavors. Pear aromas with juicy tropical fruit flavors.


·         FEL Savoy Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 ($48). We enjoyed the balance and finesse in this elegant single-vineyard chardonnay from Anderson Valley.  Forward tropical fruit and citrus flavors cloaked in a lushly textured mouthfeel.

·         Grounded Wine Company Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($25). A relative newcomer among producers, this producer is making wine using grapes from Washington, Oregon and California. This cabernet, blended with malbec and merlot, comes from grapes grown in the Columbia Valley’s Red Mountain. Good structure with moderate tannins and ripe plum and black cherry flavors. Soft in the mouth, it has hint s of vanilla and clove.

·         Stony Hill Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 ($54).  We liked the balance in this estate-grown chardonnay from Spring Mountain. Tasted in a flight of California chardonnays, it soared to the top because of its firm acidity. A good food chardonnay, it has some mineral notes that identify the soil and nuanced apple flavors.  Unlike many chardonnays, it is not over-oaked.


Fire up the grill, but don’t forget the wine

(May 27, 2019)


Monday was the first holiday to open the summer season and although not everyone was basking in the sun, it was the day to at least think warm thoughts. Memorial Day is also the symbolic start of the barbecue season when every outdoor chef becomes a fearless carnivore. Ribs, burgers, venison, chicken – anything that will take a rub or slather.

As summer approaches and the invitations are extended for family or neighborhood barbecues, it’s time to line up the wines. The goal should be to keep the wines fun, light and interesting.

 Given the mix of sweet and spicy food preparations, there is much to think about. Whether you have a tapenade or a tomato-based sauce will dictate which direction to take. For instance, syrah/shiraz or zInfandel complement tomato-based sauces that lean toward sweet. If there is spice or mustard, you’ll need to find a foil, such as sauvignon blanc, sangiovese or rosè.

Otherwise, a meat without a lot of sauce can take a variety of foods.

Port: zinfandel, syrah, rosè, Spanish garnacha, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc.

Brisket: zinfandel, cabenet sauvignon, Cotes du Rhone, tempranillo or red blends.

Ribs: zinfandel, shiraz, barbera, chianti.

Chicken: sauvignon blanc, rosè Beaujolais, chardonnay, pinot grigio.

Burgers: tempranillo, shiraz, zinfandel, red blends.

Steak: Malbec, cabernet sauvignon, full-bodied zinfandel, tannat, brunello di montalcino or salice salentino.

If fish is your choice for the grill, you again need to think about the sauce. An herb-based sauce is best paired with white wines, such as sauvignon blanc, riesling, or chardonnay. But tuna and salmon are made for red wines, especially a full-bodied pinot noir or a sparkling rosè.

Here are 10 barbecue wines to get you in the grilling mood:

·         Amalaya Malbec 2017 ($16). Blended with tannat and petit verdot, this muscular malbec from Salta, Argentina, is rich in red cherry and raspberry flavors.  Goes with: steak.

·         Colome Malbec 2017 ($25). Made entirely of malbec grapes, this wine from the Calchaqui Valley in Salta, Argentina has a medium body and good length. Red berry flavors.  Goes with: steak or burgers.

·         Bodegas Faustino V Rioja Red Reserva 2013 ($30). We loved the generous fruit flavors of this simple but delicious blend of tempranillo and mazuelo grapes. Nicely balanced with integrated oak and bright cherry flavors and a dash of spice. Goes with: ribs, burgers, flank steak.

·         Domaine de Cala Rosè 2018 ($16).  From the heart of Provence, this rosè is relatively new to the field.  A classic blend of cinsault, syrah, grenache and rolle, it as red fruit character and a dash of spice. For $25 you can get a version of this wine aged in oak for three months – a rarity for rosè. Goes with: salmon, pork or chicken.

·         Public Radio Paso Robles Red Wine 2016 ($25). Grounded Wine Company has a winner with this luxuriously rich blend of grenache, syrah and petite sirah. Bold plum and cherry flavors with a dash of cinnamon. Goes with: ribs, burgers, pork.

·         Casanova di Neri Irrosso 2015 ($22). You get a good bang for your buck with the rosso di montacino from Tuscany. It is 75 percent sangiovese with the balance made up of colorino. Aged in oak for 12 months and in bottle for another six months, it has mature and round red berry flavors and a touch of vanilla.  We loved it. Goes with: steak.

·         Bootleg Red Blend 2015 ($38).  With all of the insipid, zinfandel-based blends on the market, we can grow very tired of this category. But this one builds on merlot with portions of petite sirah, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petit verdot. This combination gives the wine more grip and less of the ripe flavor zinfandel delivers. Plum and blueberry flavors with a touch of strawberry, tobacco and allspice. Generous aromas of espresso and wild blackberries. Goes with: ribs, tomato-based sauces, pork.

·         Santedame Chianti Classico 2015 ($18). Varietal bright red fruit flavors, soft mouthfeel and medium body. Balanced acidity and more depth than your normal chianti. Ribs, chicken.

·         St. Supery Dollarhide Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($35). One of our perennial favorites, this sauvignon blanc is a stunner. It has grapefruit and lime notes with a rich texture and a kiss of oak. Goes with: chicken, sausages, white fish.

·         Trimbach Alsace Pinot Blanc 2017 ($15). Trimbach is one of the most venerable producers of Alsace wines and this simple, medium-bodied pinot blanc is why. Unlike common pinot grigios, it is more restrained and refined. It has the same apricot and peach notes, but there is good acidity to make this wine what a pinot blanc should be. Floral aromatics and a dash of mineral. Goes with: Pork and chicken.


·         Cigar Old Vine Zinfandel 2017 ($20). A little petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot give this old-vine zin depth and character. Classic, ripe dark berry flavors with hints of vanilla, mocha and spice.

·         Journey Chardonnay 2016 ($85). A flagship wine of Matanzas Creek Winery, Journey draws grapes from four blocks of Alexander Mountain Estate vineyards. Elegant in style it has the right amount of acidity and oak to keep the rich peach and pear flavors in check. This is an incredible wine.

·         Sarah’s Vineyard Santa Clara Valley Chardonnay 2017 ($24). This is a decently priced chardonnay with forward apple and peach flavors with oak-inspired vanilla and coconut notes.

It’s time to smell the roses

(May 20, 2019)


Many years ago we wrote about rosé as if it was from a distant constellation. People were drinking white zinfandel then and thought, surely, it’s was the sweet blush wine to which we were referring. Ugh. Alas, we were really trying to distance the dry French rosé from sweet wines that sported the same color. No one really noticed or cared, so our rosé was left in the dust.

Today, however, rosés are more than just discovered – they are exploited.  Just about every winemaker from every country we know is making a rosé to stay up with consumer demands for this fun summer drink.

Unfortunately, not everyone is making good rosé. A consumer who could once depend on a Provence rosé made from grenache, syrah, cinsault and mourvedre has to wade through rosés from California, Italy and South America made from pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, barbera, merlot and more.

Different grapes, different hues, different regions and even a different winemaking process has meant that just about anything goes when it comes to making rosé.  And it’s that simplicity that have given producers an oversized palette to craft their rosés.

Alas, prices of rosé have risen as their popularity has grown. A rosé from France generally cost less than $15, but on the West Coast we’re seeing rosés for more than $20 a bottle.  These expensive versions offer a lot more complexity – but is complexity what you’re looking for in a light summer quaffer?

The color of rosé is as varied as the grapes. The color is determined by the length of time the grape skins are I contact with the juice.

There’s nothing like rosé on a warm summer day on the patio or boat. If you have friends around, you better have several bottles. Besides being a good sipping wine, it goes well with fish, fowl and other summer fare. Here are 20 great rosés to get you started.

·         Domaine de Cala Rosé ($15). From the Brignoles region of southern France, this estate blends grenache, cinsault, syrah, rolle, grenache blanc, carignan and cabernet sauvignon. It is a layered rosé with red fruit flavors and a dash of spice. Cala also makes a premium rosé ($25) that is aged for three months in oak.

·         Domaines Ott By.Ott Cotes de Provence Rosé 2018 ($25). A venerable pioneer in rosé, Domaine Ott is known for its luxurious crus classe Chateau de Selle. But now it has a less expensive version that uses the same technique to produce the best the region has to offer. Expressive aromas of grapefruit and stone fruit are followed by red fruit flavors and mineral.

·         Olema Rosé Cotes de Provence 2018 ($16). Made by an American producer but produced in Provence, this stunning blend of grenache, syrah, cinsault, carignan and mourverdre shows off assertive aromas of strawberries and raspberries followed by cherry and watermelon flavors. Broad in style and with balanced acidity, it’s a winner.

·         Gamble Family Vineyards Rosé 2018 ($20). You get a lot of complexity for the price in this unique Napa Valley rosé made from cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petite verdot.  Strawberry and orange blossom aromas mingle with red fruit and grapefruit flavors. Crisp and long in the finish.

·         Eberle Cotes-du-Robles Rosé 2018 ($24). A take-off of Cotes du Rhone, this spirited rosé from Paso Robles uses the Rhone grapes of grenache, syrah and viognier. A cool fermentation keeps the wine fresh and the acidity bright. Pink in color and packed with tropical fruit and strawberry notes.

·         Inman Family Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot OGV Vineyard 2018 ($38). We’re not surprised that even at this price Kathleen Inman’s rosé flies off the shelf at its tasting room in the Russian River Valley. Big and bold, whole clusters of grapes are destemmed and pressed within a few hours. Strawberry and watermelon flavors dominate this crisp rosé.

·         Copain Wines Tous Ensemble Rosé of Pinot Noir 2018 ($25). Made entirely of pinot noir grapes fermented in stainless steel tanks, this fresh and lively rosé from Mendocino County sports cherry and melon flavors with a dash of mint.  Pale salmon color.

·         Beckmen Vineyards Purisima Mountain Vineyard Grenache Rosé 2018 ($25). We like the Rhone-style wines from this Ballard Canyon winery. This grenache is blended with some syrah and has classic strawberry and watermelon flavor.

·         Gran Moraine Yamill-Carlton Rosé of Pinot Noir 2018 ($28). From a primo area of the Willamette Valley, Gran Moraine produces a consistently remarkable rosé year after year. The 2018 is classically dry with balanced acidity and bright, fresh watermelon and cherry flavors.

·         Beronia Rioja Rosé 2018 ($13). This rosado is a blend of garnacha and tempranillo. Strawberry and peach notes with a creamy texture.

·         Cune Rioja Rosado 2018 ($13). Made entirely from tempranillo grapes, this value rosé has forward strawberry notes with hints of licorice. Delicious.

·         Ferraton Pere & Fils Cotes-du Rhone Samorens Rosé 2018 ($14). One of our favorite rosés in our tasting flight, the Ferraton has bright acidity balanced with abundant fruit. Made up of 50 percent grenache 30 percent syrah, and 20 percent cinsault, this very nice summer sipper displays notes of strawberry and cherry.                                    

·         Costaripa Mattiavezzola “Rosamara” Valtenesi Chiaretto DOC 2018 ($23).  We don’t experience a whole lot of wines, much less rosé from Lombardy but maybe we should. Made from a blend of indigenous grapes: groppello (60 percent) marzemino as well as a touch of sangiovese and barbera, this is a mouth-filling rosé with predominant cherry notes and ample acidity.                                                                      

·         Peyrassol Cuvee de la Commanderie rosé AOP Cotes de Provence 2018 ($20). A blend of mostly cinsault, grenache, and syrah, this rosé from the extremely popular Provence region is rich and lively with strawberry and raspberry notes and a hint of citrus. A dependable producer.                                                                                 

·         Pasqua 11 Minutes Rosé della Venezie IGT  2018 ($17-23). Crafted from indigenous grapes, corvina and trebbiano di lugana along with a dash of syrah and carmenere. The name refers to the length of time the grape skins remain in contact with the grape must after pressing. Berry fruits and citrus notes dominate this delicious rosé.                         

·         Zoe Rosé Peloponnese Greece 2018 ($12). A great value at this price. Made from the Greek tongue-twisting grapes agiorgitiko (70 percent) and moscofilero this excellent summer sipper displays zippy acidity and cherry notes.                                                                                    

·          Arrumaco Garnacha Rosé Vino De Espana 2018 ($10). Fat and rich on the palate with tame acidity. Ripe cherry and strawberry notes along with this fabulous price make this wine a real winner.

·         Masciarelli Colline Teatine Rosato 2018 ($14). From the Abruzzo region of Italy, this rosé has citrus and red berry notes.

·         Etude North Canyon Vineyard Rosé 2018 ($22). You get a lot of complexity for the price from this Santa Barbara County rosé. Classic salmon color with strawberry and peach aromas mingling with watermelon and cherry flavors and a dash of minerality.

A tribute to the oft forgotten grenache

(May 13, 2019)


We always thought rosé was the most underrated wine. Then we remembered albarino, mourvedre, riesling and, well, anything but cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot. There are a lot of underrated wines that, despite their value, escape the attention of consumers. As much as we flap our gums about buying them, consumers stay away because missing out on their daily plonk is like missing a segment of “Jeopardy!”

It may then be futile to recommend grenache, the most underrated wine at least in this week’s wine column. But we’ll try. Grenache can be light enough to sip or serious enough to complement beef. It is thin-skinned and thus light in color and body, but it offers a lot of fresh fruit flavors. Strawberry, raspberry, plum and cherry flavors are often joined by leather and spice. In short, lots of flavor without those mouth-puckering tannins. For that reason, grenaches are great matches to grilled chicken, pasta, burgers, pizza and even some fish.

Grenache is one of the most versatile grapes in the world and often plays an important role in blends. In Australia it is blended with shiraz and mourvedre. It is popular in Spain, where it is known as garnacha.  In southern Rhone Valley, it is part of the fantastic blends of Chateauneuf du Pape, Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Cotes du Rhone. Provence uses grenache for its best rosés. But the grape also does well by itself.

Here are several good wines we recently tasted that include grenache or are made entirely from grenache:

·         Qupe Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Grenache 2014 ($30). This venerable producer makes incredible syrah/grenache blends, but it also makes a separate grenache that is medium bodied but with delicate raspberry, cranberry and cherry notes. A little syrah is blended here.

·         Torres Sangre de Toro 2015 ($10). A lot of cherry, cola and ripe plum flavors with a dash of licorice. What a deal!

·         Las Rocas 2015 ($10). A favorite of our’s year after year, this old-vine garnacha is from the fabulous Eric Solomon portfolio. Cherry and cranberry flavors with a hint of anise.

·         Bodegas Breca 2015 ($16). A selection from the Spanish portfolio of Jorge Ordonez, Breca has black cherry, red currant and cassis flavors. Surprisingly full bodied.

·         Yalumba Barossa Bush Vine Grenache 2018 ($21). We liked the rich texture of this smooth grenache that exhibits plum and black cherry fruit flavor.

·         Beckmen Purisima Mountain Vineyard Grenache 2014 ($50). One of the most sturdy, full-bodied grenaches from California, this monster has lots of red berry flavors, deep color and serious tannins.

·         Alain Jaume Grande Garrigue Vacqueyras 2014 ($25).  Blackberry and plum flavor dominate this dense, delicious grenache from a region in the Rhone Valley known for making the “poor man’s Chateauneuf du Pape.” Ripe dark fruit character with a hint of licorice.

·         Chateau de Nalys Blanc Grand Vin 2017 ($105). This is an extraordinary wine from one of the oldest properties in Chateauneuf du Pape. Owned by the venerable E. Guigal, this estate is comprised of three vineyards, each of which brings something special to a blend of grenache (59 percent), syrah, mourvedre, counoise and vacarese. Great structure, pure fruit character with lots of raspberry and blackberry flavors and hints of spice and pepper.

·         E. Guigal Gigondas 2014 ($35). Sweet blackberry and plum flavors with a dash of spice and a generously long finish. Delicious as always.

·         Hickinbotham The Elder Grenache 2016 ($75).  Delicious and full-bodied, this Australian gem is loaded with ripe dark fruit and spice. Great, hedonistic texture.

·         D’Arenberg The Custodian Grenache 2016 ($18). This excellent Australian producer has a homerun with this grenache year after year.  Ripe, forward red berry flavors with a dash of vanilla and chocolate.

·         La Miranda Secastilla Garnacha Blanca 2013 ($17). Grenache blanc is technically a different grape variety, but we include it here because it’s a white wine that is equally underrated. We loved the citrus and spice notes in this wine from Spain’s Somotano rregon.

·         Bodegas Vinas del Vero Secastilla Garnacha 2010 ($30). Made from grapes grown on old, old vines, this complex and delicious garnacha is from the Somontano region of Spain. Abundant aromas of cherries and tobacco are followed by forward, red currant and raspberry flavors with hints of vanilla and chocolate. The additional bottle age makes this a serious wine that can be enjoyed now. Fabulous.

·         Bodegas Nekeas El Chaparral Old Vine Garnacha 2016 ($14). This well-priced garnacha from the Navarra region of Spain shows off fresh red fruit flavors with elegance and hints of pepper, coffee and mineral. It is from the reliable Jorge Ordonez Selections.

·         Bodega Inurrieta Mimao 2016 ($18).  Another wine from the Navarra region, the Mimao is a distinguished garnacha with broad strawberry and raspberry flavors with hints of vanilla and pepper. Fifteen percent of the wine is cabernet sauvignon.

·         Ventisquero Grey Glacier 2017 ($20) We throw in this garnacha blend from Chile because it demonstrates that the U.S. and Europe don’t have a lock on grenache. The indigenous carinena and mataro (also known as mourvedre) grapes offer this mostly garnacha wine a unique profile. Raspberry and cassis aromas are followed by cherry flavors and significant acidity.

·         Leo Stein Wines Provisor Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Grenache 2018 ($36).  Generous aromas of cherry and plum with juicy cherry and strawberry flavors, a dash of black pepper and licorice. Round tannins give this more body than many grenache wines from California.


·         Hahn Family SLH Pinot Noir 2017 ($30). Sourcing its grapes from four vineyards, this well priced pinot noir has strawberry and cherry notes with a forest floor and pepper finish.

·         Four Virtues Monterey Pinot Noir 2017 ($25). A decent value in the crowded and expensive pinot noir category, this delicious wine exudes aromas of dried rosemary and plums followed by black cherry and strawberry flavors.

·         Fortress Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($20). This blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec is medium-bodied and simple but ripe in dark fruit with notes of blueberry, blackberry and vanilla.

Bolgheri: a forgotten wine region of Italy

(May 6, 2019)


 Most people think first of Tuscany when it comes to Italian wines. Here in the shadows of medieval towns of Florence, Siena and maybe Montalcino, sangiovese is used to make a wide variety of wines. However, a revolution in red winemaking is occurring in a relatively unknown wine growing subsection of Tuscany known as Bolgheri.

Hard against the Tyrrhenian Sea on the west coast of Italy, this region is producing some of the most highly sought after and expensive wines in all of Italy. No less than notable wine making giants Angelo Gaja and the Antinori family are producing super tuscan wines in this region.

Sassicaia, a red wine from Bolgheri, crafted from Bordeaux varietals, started a revolution in the 1970s when its wine made from Bordeaux varietals placed highly in international wine tasting competitions. Up until then the Bolgheri region was only known for producing mediocre wines from indigenous grapes.

Granted DOC status in 1994, Bolgheri is now a recognized and sought-after source of mostly red wines that command serious prices. Ninety percent of Bolgheri’s wine production is exported to other countries.

Eugenio Campolmi founded Le Macchiole in the late 1980s when he planted 20 different grape varieties to ascertain the best match for Bolgheri’s terroir. Settling on the classic Bordeaux red varietals as well as syrah, he crafted his wines from single varietals as opposed to his neighbors’ blends of Bordeaux varieties. He ages his red wines for one year longer than required by the DOC regulations.

Eugenio died in 2002 and his surviving wife Cinzia Merli took over along with her brother Massimo tending the vines.

We recently met with Gianluca Putzolu, director of Le Macchiole, to taste three of their wines.

The Le Macchiole Bolgheri Rosso  Bolgheri DOC 2017 ($36) is a great entry point to experience this new appellation. Unusual for Le Macchiole, this entry-level wine is their only blend: 40 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet franc, and 15 percent each of cabernet sauvignon and syrah, all sourced from Le Macchiole’s estate vineyards. Cherry elements dominate along with soft tannins to make a very attractive, fairly priced package.

We also enjoyed the Le Macchiole Paleo Rosso Bolgheri Rosso DOC 2015 ($120). This highly acclaimed red wine is 100 percent cabernet franc. Paleo is a delightful expression of cabernet franc with ripe plum and cherry elements as well as a hint of herbs and olive.

The Le Macchiole Messorio IGT Toscano Rosso 2015 ($240) is the pinnacle of Le Macchiole’s portfolio. Made entirely from merlot grapes, this wine is still a baby that should develop well over 10-20 years. Dense fruit with dried cherries and ripe plum evident in a balanced oak package.



This Sunday is Mother’s Day, an annual occasion when children need to pay tribute to the women who have made their lives special. Hopefully, she has the day off from cooking and tending to family needs. It might be a good time to let her relax with a glass of wine.

Here are some recommendations:

·         Rosé.   There are lots of rosés from which to choose, but we like Peyrassol Cuvee de la Commanderies Rosé 2018 ($20) from Provence. A layered, fresh blend of cinsault, grenache, syrah, rolle, mourvedre, cabernet sauvignon and carignan, it has red fruit and citrus flavors. But her some roses to go with her rosé!

·         Champagne. There’s nothing like French bubbles to spoil a woman. And Moet & Chandon’s 2012 Grand Vintage Rose ($85) adds color to the effervescence. Silky and delicious.

·         Pinot noir.  Often described as seductive and sexy, a luxurious pinot noir is bound to please. We love the 2016 Sea Smoke “Ten” Pinot Noir ($82) for its complexity and layers of fruit. Does complex, sexy and luxurious sound like her?

·         Pinot grigio. Italy put this grape variety on the map, but we recently discovered an American version: Swanson Vineyards San Benito Pinot Grigio 2018 ($21).  Lots of stone fruit flavors.

·         Chardonnay. There are a ton of chardonnays on the market. Avoid those clever ones with “mother” in the title and reach for something better. We like the reasonably priced 2017 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay ($25). This Sonoma County wine shows off apple and citrus flavors in a smooth, full body.

·         Sauvignon Blanc. We like a little semillon in our sauvignon blanc to tame those mouth-puckering grapefruit flavors. That’s what we get in the 2018 Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc ($25) from Napa Valley. Fermented in French oak, concrete eggs and stainless steel, it has more complexity than your average sauvignon blanc. Fresh citrus flavors and a rich texture.


·         Le Volte Dell ‘Ornellaia Toscana IGT 2015 ($32). The little brother of Frescobaldi’s uber-expensive super Tuscan Ornellaia, this offering gives your taste buds a hint of greatness. Made up of 67 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, and 13 percent sangiovese, this wine features ripe fruit scents and flavors of cherry and plum in a rich, round ready to drink wine.

·         Cusumano Nero D’Avola Sicily 2017 ($12). This all stainless steel aged red wine is a great value for everyday drinking. Fresh berry notes dominate this refreshing wine.                                                                                                             

·         Cedar + Salmon Red Wine Blend Walla Walla 2016 ($25). Merlot and petit verdot is blended with cabernet sauvignon to produce a medium body, rich wine with jammy blackberry flavors and a hint of vanilla.

·         Sosie Pinot Noir Spring Hill Vineyard 2015 ($43). Intense strawberry aromas with red fruit and plum flavors, earth and a dash of spice.


The power and authority of Zena Crown

(April 29, 2019)


Jackson Family Wines knew what it was doing when it purchased Zena Crown Vineyard in Oregon’s rich Willamette Valley.  It was Jackson’s introduction to Oregon wine-making and one that would yield impressive results with a new line of pinot noirs. Zena Crown was not only their visa to very fertile vineyards in the Willamette, but it was also a visa to some of the best pinot noir.

Jackson purchased the 115-acre vineyard in 2013 and with that vintage released its first Zena Crown Vineyard label. If the Jackson name isn’t enough to inspire a serious pinot-phile to try it, Zena Crown graces the labels of several more impressive labels, including Robert Parker’s Beaux Freres, Penner-Ash, Soter, and Solena.

Zena Crown Vineyard

Zena Crown Vineyard

The vineyard is located in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA and was developed by Premier Pacific Vineyards in the early 2000s – not that long ago when you think of some of the historic properties of Napa Valley. But in the Willamette Valley, vineyard history doesn’t date much farther back than that.

Elevations of this premier south-facing slope range from 300 to 650 feet. That variation, the variety of volcanic soils, 48 unique blocks, and the use of a diverse array of clones gives these many producers the opportunity to create a variety of expressions in their pinot noirs. And that makes a comparison of the wines exciting.

Shane Moore was hand-picked to lead Jackson Family Wine’s Zena Crown Vineyard pinot noirs – 2013 was his first vintage. In an email he explained the vineyard’s uniqueness:

Shane Moore, Zena Crown Vineyard winemaker

Shane Moore, Zena Crown Vineyard winemaker

“The short answer is terroir: it’s the combination of all things we know nothing about. It’s a complex topic that we can never fully understand, but we can attempt to simply by looking at mesoclimate and soil.

“The Zena Crown Vineyard takes the brunt of the wind from the Van Duzer Corridor, which is in plain sight from the west side of the property and has a particularly profound influence during the summer. The west winds blowing off the Pacific pick up every evening during this time and help to create a cooler mesoclimate at the vineyard. This in turn slows down the phenological ripening of pinot noir at this site compared to other parts of the Willamette Valley, and often delays harvest well into October. 

“The soils are also unique on this site. They range from very Deep Jory, to Nekia, to very old marine sedimentary. This helps to give the vineyard more depth, complexity, and a greater palette of flavors to create unique and interesting wines that are not only authentic but have a compelling reason for existing.”

Alas, like most Willamette Valley pinot noirs, these wines are made in small quantities and are expensive. The 2016 vintage was great in Oregon.

As buyers sort through the countless producers of Oregon pinot noir, recognizing the Zena Crown name on a label helps to identify quality.  Here is a sampling of producers who use Zena Crown grapes:

·         Zena Crown Vineyard Slope Pinot Noir ($75). This is one of the more serious pinot noirs we tasted in this flight. Firm tannins with blueberry and cranberry flavors, earthy and well structured.

·         Zena Crown Vineyard The Sum Pinot Noir ($75). Multiple blocks of grapes are used to create a black cherry, blackberry profile.

·         Penner-Ash Zena Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir ($72).  What makes this wine unique is the sweet fruit character that coats the palate with luxury. Violet and dried fruit aromas give way to raspberry pie flavors. Winemaker Lynn Penner-Ash started working with Zena Crown fruit in 2006. She uses fruit from one block and picks from multiple passes.

·         Beaux Freres Zena Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($75).  Great balance and round on the plate with raspberry and plum notes. Hints of anise and spice.

·         Siduri Zena Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($65). Concentrated with fresh black cherry and raspberry fruit.

·         Alexana Zena Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 ($70). The proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove, this big pinot noir has round and supple flavors with fine tannins and dark fruit character.


A Greek friend, Nick Capousis, recently suggested we retry retsina, a white resinated wine from Greece. In the past retsina was the one wine that we unanimously agreed was pretty much undrinkable. Older versions of this Greek restaurant staple that we had tasted several times in our long wine tasting career were akin to drinking poorly made white wine infused with pine sap.

This insipid wine made us question the quality of other Greek wines just becoming available in the U.S. in the past 20 years. Well, we are converts to appreciating contemporary Greek wine red, white and rosé and have commented often about the quality and in most cases the value of wines from this ancient country.

The one outlier was a haunting memory of retsina, which clouded our otherwise fond feelings for modern Greek winemaking. Enter Tetramythos Retsina Greece ($12), a modern version of retsina, which is biodynamically farmed, and fermented in amphorae with wild yeasts. Estate-grown roditis grapes are employed and only 40 percent of the wine is infused with the pine resin. The resulting white wine is citrusy, herbal and refreshing with just the barest hint of resin, which adds an interesting complexity to this traditional Greek wine. It is a perfect foil for Greek meze or small plate appetizers and a fun summertime quaff. Thanks, Nick!


·         Effort Center of Effort Pinot Noir Edna Valley 2016 ($30). Edna Valley is part of the Central Coast appellation in California, and has California’s longest growing season. Increasingly known for high quality pinot noir this offering from Effort is no exception. Effort displays plum and berry notes, great texture and length.                                                                                                                 

·         Talley Estate Pinot Noir Arroyo Grande Valley 2015 ($33). Non-filtered and aged in French oak (30 percent new). It is a bold pinot noir expressing strawberry and cranberry notes with some spicy elements. A joy to drink.   

·         Dry Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Dry Creek Valley 2016 ($29). This fairly priced cabernet sauvignon is representative of the wines from Dry Creek Vineyards. Classic cherry and cassis nose and flavors in an unobtrusive oak frame. An added bonus is the extensive amount of information contained on the back label which lists types of grapes utilized with percentages as well vineyard sources, oak treatment, brix at harvest and vineyard yields in tons per acre.                                                                           



Exploring Languedo-Roussillon

(April 22, 2019)


We’ve been on this quest of late to find more wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon. It hasn’t been easy. An ancient but neglected wine growing region of France, the Languedoc-Roussillon has been troubled by producing inferior wines for decades and thus discouraging merchants. But that’s slowly changing and wine enthusiasts would be wise to check out these wines before prices rise.

Now the single biggest wine-producing region of France, Languedoc-Roussillon's more than 600,000 acres of vineyards yield mostly red grapes, such as grenache, syrah, cinsault, mourvedre and carignan. The region has avoided regulation, which makes wine-making a free-for-all. However, in the last decade there has been more attempts to steer winemakers in a unified direction. The appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) was changed from the Coteaux du Languedoc to just Languedoc AOC and expanded to include Roussillon. These changes allowed winemakers to use grapes across the appellation and thus make wines more complex. There are also seven designated crus, such as Chinian and Corbieres, that range in quality from the general Languedoc AOC to Grand Vins.  Most importantly, there has been a distinct improvement in the region’s table wines, called Vin de France.

The lack of regulations, however influential a reduction in quality, has given wine producers a lot of freedom in selecting grape varieties. Similar to what happened in Tuscany, the winemakers are flaunting tradition to create blends that include non-indigenous grape varieties, such as merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Producers such as Mas de Daumas Gassac, Bertrand and Jean-Claude Mas are making some incredibly complex yet non-traditional blends.  Even Michel Chapoutier of the Rhone Valley has launched new ventures in this emerging region.

We like these wines for their rich, garrigue character and intensity. And, they are still decently priced. Here are a few we recently tasted:

·         Domaine de Terrebrune Bandol Rouge 2014 ($40). In 1963 Georges DeLille left his job as a sommelier in Paris to save this domaine. He spent a decade restoring the property, recruited his son Reynald and began releasing some of the most extraordinary and age-worthy wines of the region. Grenache and cinsault join this mourvedre-dominated blend. More forward in style than many mourvedres from the region, it has the classic varietal flavors of wild blackberries and plum with a hint of licorice and mineral. The dusty tannins suggest 6-10 years of aging before the wine reaches its peak.  

·         Chateau La Negly La Brise Marine 2017 ($20). We bought several bottles of this tantalizing white blend of roussanne and bourboulenc. Enveloped by crisp acidity, it shows off exotic fruits -- mango and white peaches – with a dash of almonds.  

·         La Condamine Paulignan Minervois 2013 ($18). This gem uses syrah, grenache, carignan and cinsault grapes to produce a lively, elegant blend. Nicely textured with bright dark berry fruit with hints of lavender and olives. There is no need to cellar this wine, but it will survive at least 5 years.  

·         La Bastside Blanche Bandol 2014 ($35). Bandol is known for its mourvedre, so this grape varietly plays a dominant role in this wine. Grenache rounds off the bright berry flavors but it’s the mourvedre that gives the wine its color and depth. This gem adds a garrigue touch to an otherwise juicy wine with gritty tannins.  

·         Chateau Bouisset “Cuvee Eugenie” La Clape Languedoc 2015 ($20). La Clape is the same AOC that includes Chateau Negly. It is a blend of syrah and grenache grapes grown in limestone and clay soils. Aged mostly in concrete tanks, it retains its fresh and pure fruit character.   

·         Gerard Bertrand Grand Terroir Les Aspres 2014 ($20). Bertrand is making some extraordinary, textured blends in southern France. This beautiful blend of syrah, mourvedre and grenache from the Languedoc-Roussillon region has layers of red berries, a floral nose and long finish. 

·         M. Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Cotes du Roussillon Rouge 2017 ($15).  Half of this blend is grenache with the remainder made up of syrah and carignan from the slopes of the Agly Valley. Aged in concrete tanks and stainless steel, it is void of oak flavors.  Lots of rich black raspberry and black berry flavors.

·         M. Chapoutier Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem 2016 ($30). Leave it to Chapoutier to use Latin to describe his “hidden gem” from the Languedoc. A well-integrated blend of grenache, syrah and carignan from 60-year-old vines, this wine carries the “Cotes du Roussillon Villages” label which means it’s a step above the generic label. It is a delicious wine with broad aromas of dried herbs, blackberries and violets.  The palate is dense with plum and dark berry flavors with hints of licorice.   


 Patrick Melley, co-founder and winemaker for Russian Hill Estate Winery, is applying his knowledge of making great pinot noir to a new project called Talawind Ranch, also in the Russian River Valley. A former horse ranch, the 9 acres of vineyards enjoy a combination of micro climates and soil variation.

At $30 each, these wines represent a great value in the pinot noir category.

We were impressed with three vintages of the Talawind Ranch pinot noir.  The 2014 pinot noir was ripe in style with notes of plums and black cherries. We like the 2015 pinot noir for its generous spice aromas and red berry flavors.  And the 2016 pinot noir was our favorite with a little complexity, more body and fresh strawberry and red cherry fruit.


·         MacRostie Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2016 ($34). This medium-body pinot noir has generous red berry aromas and strawberry, cranberry flavors.

·         Jackson Estate Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($40). The warmer temperatures in Alexander Valley produce riper and often more alcoholic cabernets. This version is blended wIth petit verdot, merlot, cabernet franc and malbec. Dark berry and currant flavors with a hint of mocha and vanilla.

·         Pfendler Sonoma Coast Pinot NoiR 2015 ($45). This juicy and delicious pinot noir from Sonoma County has a floral nose and red cherry flavors.


From farmer to winemaker: John Balletto

April 15, 2019


How wine producers get into the business of making wine has always fascinated us. There are those born into a multi-generational winery and those who abandon a lucrative business career to start a new adventure. There are those who graduate from University of California at Davis to slave at a winery and eventually graduate to a senior winemaker. And, there are those who fell into the business out of desperation.

That was the case with John Balletto, whose transition from a vegetable farmer to a successful wine producer embodies the proverbial Horatio Alger story of perseverance and hard work.

Balletto was raised on a vegetable farm in Sonoma County near Sebastopol.  He worked alongside his father in high school and was planning to move away to pursue his love of football and track at a major university. Then, his life took its first turn for the worse when in 1977 his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer during his senior year of high school.  After his father died, he postponed college, sold his coveted Pontiac GTO, and bought 5 acres surrounding the family home for a small vegetable farm to operate with his mother.

He continued to buy property and in 10 years he became one of the largest vegetable growers in northern California.  Then came a second wave setbacks: a medfly infestation, the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement, a worker strike, and three El Nino rainstorms. The bank called his loan and instead of going further into debt, they sold the business – but not the land. Down but not out he took the advice of winemaking friends such as Warren Dutton and Cecile DeLoach, and gradually turned vegetable fields into vineyards.  His fortune took a turn for the better, as evidenced by his pinot noirs and chardonnays, made under the guidance of winemaker Anthony Beckman.

Moving from vegetables to grapes wasn’t really out of character, he said. His family was from Genoa and he was tasting wine since he was 8 years old.

 “The vegetable business was the catalyst to get me started in grapes. Hard work works,” he said.

He never lost his appreciation for farming.

“When we were in full production, we had 700 acres and getting three crops of vegetables a year. It got so intense because you can’t make a mistake,” he said. “All of that carried over to the grape business. We went from 16 vegetable varieties to a mono crop. Although that sounds easy, you have certain times of the year that are just as critical as vegetable farming.”

The Russian River Valley rewards Balletto with cooling fogs in the morning and warm afternoons. His property – 800 planted acres – is 10-12 miles from the ocean. He said Sebastopol Hills is one of the top five areas in the world for pinot noir and chardonnay.

Balletto is making nine pinot noir wines, seven of which are vineyard-designated, and five chardonnays. Everything comes from estate-grown grapes. He also makes small amounts of sauvignon blanc, syrah, zinfandel, pinot gris and a rosé of pinot noir.

We liked the 2016 Balletto BCD Vineyard Pinot Noir ($46) for its luxurious texture and structure. It has lots of bright cherry notes and a dash of spice.  Balletto’s rosé of pinot noir is also a delicious wine to ring in spring – lots of cherry and strawberry flavors enveloped by crisp acidity. The Balletto Russian River Valley chardonnay ($28) has good balance and pear, citrus notes. 

Sebastopol Hills, which actually is part of both Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs, is more remote for tourists on the wine trial, but it is home to some of the top pinot noir and chardonnay producers. Balletto counts as its neighbors Merry Edwards, Martinelli and Patz & Hall.  Other wineries from this region that are producing great pinot noirs and chardonnays include De Loach, Inman Family, Hartford Court, Kosta Brown, La Follette, Littorai and Pali. It is one of the coolest regions in Russian River Valley – great for pinot noir – and has many rolling hills where Balletto’s vineyards are planted.

Balletto said he is happy with the direction his fate took him. “I tell my two daughters what a great business this is to be in touch with the land, sharing friends and traveling the world to meet great people. What other industry can you do that?”


The success of The Prisoner has inspired several winemakers to copy its style of a highly extracted, bold and rich blend of red grapes. This style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but we know it’s popular. The Prisoner, under new ownership and made in massive quantities, is expensive. Here are a couple of similar wines that mimic this wine:

·         Ravage California Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($13). If you like your cabernets extracted and rich rather than complex and layered, this wine is for you.  Inky dark and rich in flavors of dark fruit, it is blended with merlot, petite sirah, zinfandel and other red grape varieties.

·         Three Finger Jack 2016 ($22).  This wine is named after an outlaw who once roamed the Sierra Foothills where this wine is made. The bottle shape is something you would find on the bar top of a saloon. Extracted with rich and dark flavors of blackberries and black cherries with a good dose of chocolate and vanilla.


·         Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve California Pinot Noir 2016 ($17). Typical of Kendall-Jackson this is a well-made, balanced wine that is reasonably priced for pinot noir. Bright fruit character with red cherry and strawberry flavors and an underlying earthy note. Hint of vanilla.

·         Gamble Family Vineyards Paramount Red Wine 2015 ($90). Tom Gamble’s flagship wine, this Bordeaux-like blend is dense and delicious with good complexity, black cherry and licorice aromas, dark fruit flavors and a hint of clove. Fine tannins and long finish.

·         Cuvaison Methode Beton Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($35). This may go down as the most unique sauvignon blanc we’ve tasted. Winemaker Steve Rogstad ferments and ages a special lot of estate-grown Carneros grapes in a concrete (Beton) egg. The egg allows the lees to stay suspended to develop a richer texture. Mango and pineapple notes with a dash of thyme.

·         Famille Perrin La Gille Gigondas 2015 ($28).  The producers of Chateau Beaucastel now has a gigondas. A blend of 80 percent grenache and 20 percent syrah, the 2015 is soft, approachable and luxurious with opulent raspberry and anise flavors, rosemary herb aromas and soft tannins. It may not be chateauneuf du pape, but it’s a lot less money and delicious to drink now.

The ranging styles of chardonnay

(march 18, 2019)


Consumers often say one thing and do another. For instance, they say they like their dry wines but they are drinking them sweet. They just don’t know it. The same goes for chardonnay. They say they prefer something else, but they are drinking chardonnay. Either that or a few people are drinking a lot of chardonnay.

Chardonnay is the top selling varietal wine in the United States and sales are rising every year. In fact, one out of 5 bottles of wine purchased in 2016 was chardonnay.  Admit it, you like chardonnay.

We do. There is no better wine to complement fish and it goes with chicken, white-sauced pasta, soups, and more. It’s one of three grape varietals that go into champagne. It is the varietal that brings us those minerally wines of Chablis. And, it’s the varietal that is used exclusively in expensive French burgundies. There is no other white grape that can claim this global recognition.

Unfortunately, chardonnay has been twisted by fads and adventurous winemakers looking for distinction. Instead of using burgundies as a model, they have corrupted the variety by making it sweet, extracted or over-oaked.  Its distortion in California has sent consumers to safer varietals.

In California, chardonnay varies from appellation to appellation. In Carneros, for instance, chardonnay is lighter in body with strong acidity and apple and pear notes. The chardonnays of the vast Central Coast take on tropical fruit flavors, such as pineapple, mango and banana.  The Russian River Valley produces chardonnays with a flinty characteristic. These variations in climate and soil and not experiments in wine-making is what should distinguish good chardonnay.

In this country, the pioneer of chardonnay was Ernest Wente who in 1912 persuaded his father to import chardonnay cuttings from Burgundy to plant in Livermore Valley. Today, 80 percent of California’s chardonnays stem from the Wente clone.  Its wines, now being made by a 5th generation Wente, are still some of the best values in chardonnay.

Chardonnay’s texture is most influenced by something called “malolactic fermentation” where a winemaker converts tart malo acid to softer lactic acid.  The degree to which MLF is used dictates the creaminess of the wine. Similarly, an oak barrel can add a ton of flavors – vanilla, clove, cinnamon, spice, and coconut – to chardonnay. Like MLF, winemakers used a varying degree of oak fermentation to create the styles they want. This is where the craziness happens.

We’ve noticed more restraint in oak exposure in today’s chardonnays. Instead of those lush, flabby chardonnays of the 1990s, current chardonnays are more balanced and some have no oak exposure. These wines are much more food friendly.

Cupcake Vineyards makes two chardonnays to help consumers decide which style they like. The 2017 Cupcake Monterey County Chardonnay ($13) is more restrained with brighter acidity than the rich and lush Butterkissed Chardonnay ($13).

One particular producer who is making premium-level chardonnay is Stonestreet Estate.  It’s two vineyard-designated chardonnays from Bear Point Vineyard and Upper Barn Vineyard are world-class wines. Stonestreet sources its estate grapes from Black Mountain where vineyards range from 400 to 2,400 feet in elevation and contain 20 distinct soil types.

Here are several chardonnays that demonstrate the range of styles California has to offer:

·         Long Meadow Ranch Winery Anderson Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($40). Neutral French oak is used to mature most of this balanced chardonnay. Floral and citrus aromas with pear flavors and long finish.

·         Ponzi Vineyard Chardonnay Reserve 2014 ($42). The Dijon clones and the Laurelwood soil must have an influence on one of the most unique chardonnays we’ve tasted in a long time. We loved the complexity and apple/citrus flavors of this delicious and well-balanced chardonnay.

·         Mi Sueno Winery Los Carneros Chardonnay 2016 ($42). This is one of the most unique chardonnays we’ve tasted in a long time. Reflective of its soil and climate, it shows off exotic citrus aromas and follows up with lush pineapple, tangerine and lemon custard flavors with a good dose of oak and coconut. Full bodied and long in the finish. Delicious.

·         Stonestreet Estate Bear Point Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 ($60). With grapes grown 1,000 feet high, this single-vineyard chardonnay has a broad, rich palate with tropical fruit and lemon flavors, spice, oak-infused butterscotch and a long, supple finish.

·         Raeburn Winery Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2017 ($20). The daily fog off the Pacific Ocean cools grapes in this valley every evening. About 75 percent of this wine undergoes malolactic fermentation and about half goes into new French and Hungarian oak barrels.  Vanilla, toasted and crème brulee are the results in this otherwise pear and apple dominated palate.

·         Four Vines “The Form” Edna Valley Chardonnay 2017 ($18). About half of the wine is fermented in French oak barrels and that portion is stirred twice a month to create more complexity and lush mouthfeel.

·         Sea Smoke Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 2016 ($48). “Sea smoke” is the fog that cools the grapes in this chardonnay from Santa Barbara County. The 2016 is very elegant, much like a burgundy, with purity and tropical fruit, citrus flavors. Excellent.

·         Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2016 ($45). We love the rich texture and complexity of this delicious and well-balanced chardonnay made from estate-grown grapes. Citrus and almond aromas with apple flavors and soft mouthfeel.

·         Patz and Hall Chardonnay Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley 2016 ($49).  Patz and Hall produce a number of single vineyard chardonnay’s and pinot noir that almost never disappoint. This is another winner that reflects the pedigree of the Dutton Ranch vineyard with peach and melon elements wrapped in a creamy oak vanillin robe.

·         Steele Durell Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay 2017 ($36). Using grapes from the northern end of Carneros, Steele has a terrific, well balanced chardonnay with orange zest aromas. Pear and tropical fruit flavors. Aged 12 months in oak barrels, it has hints of vanilla and caramel.

·         Amici Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2015 ($21). The quality of this wine exceeds its price point. Very textured with layers of apple and pear notes, a dash of citrus and oak. Good balance.

·         Ryder Estate Chardonnay Central Coast 2016 ($15). This pleasant chardonnay is produced in a very easy to drink consumer friendly style. Tropical fruit and citrus notes dominate this quaffable wine.

Carmel Road Unoaked Chardonnay 2017 ($22). Unoaked chardonnays are being found in greater numbers because enough consumers have been turned off by the vanilla and butterscotch flavors that come from oak barrels. Like similar unoaked wines, this Carmel Road is a better

Rodney Strong winery innovates

(Feb. 22, 2019)


Innovation doesn’t always come easy to family-owned wineries. When you – and not some large corporation – holds the purse strings, there is risk involved in deviating from a proven course, buying more vineyards, or investing in new equipment. When such restraint persists, the death spiral begins and the corporations swoop in to pick the bones. Such is not the case at Rodney Strong, an iconic family-owned operation that is on a path to innovation.

Now 55 years old, the Rodney Strong enterprise was named after a well-known American dancer who left the stage to start a second career in winemaking in Sonoma County. For years it hummed along making traditional wine alongside other traditional, family owned wine producers. Large corporations grabbed up many of those wineries, but Rodney Strong remained family owned despite offers to buy it.

Justin Seidenfeld, winemaker at Rodney Strong

Justin Seidenfeld, winemaker at Rodney Strong

We have followed this winery for decades and felt it was always a reliable producer of decent wine but often wine with little distinction. When it began to concentrate on making some brilliant red wines – especially its single-vineyard cabernet sauvignons – we took notice.

Now comes long Justin Seidenfeld who has been given a lot of liberty to bring innovation to a family operation that is five generations deep. And, wow, is he making a difference, as a recent tasting with him demonstrated.

“This is the first major shift in 40 years,” he said.

Seidenfeld, who supervised several wineries in the extensive Constellation portfolio and then at Robert Mondavi before coming to Rodney Strong in 2010, is now director of winemaking and responsible for every operation. With total support of proprietor Tom Klein, he stays focused on getting the most out of a vineyard and winery.

In the vineyard he has shifted philosophy from measuring yield per acre to yield per vine. The new concept accepts that any vineyard has inconsistencies and changing yield according to the particular vigor of a vine will create optimum results, particularly with color and concentration.

More than 600 acres of estate vineyards are being replanted over seven years. 

In the wine-making process, Seidenfeld is concentrating on removing biogenic amines in the fermentation process. We know this sounds like technical gibberish, but it’s those amines and histamines that produce headaches for many people.  If you complain of headaches after drinking wine, try Rodney Strong. You won’t be the first to notice the difference.

Seidenfeld is also concentrating on developing consistent and predictable oak barrels that complement the tannins of the grape. A custom-made barrel that he classifies low in tannin, for instance, can be used for grapes that are naturally high in tannin. That combination moderates those bitter tannins that make your mouth pucker. The wines we tasted were definitely lacking those bitter tannins.

The style of the wines began to change not long after he arrived. There is more acidity, for instance, and the wines aren’t buttery or spicy – once popular byproducts of new oak barrels. In fact, the iconic Rodney Strong Chalk Hill chardonnay we tasted was very burgundian – austere, pure and with good acidity.

“Growth will be through innovation,” Seidenfeld said. A rosé and a red blend, for instance, were recently introduced.

More noteworthy, however, is the introduction of Rowen, a separate label owned by Klein. Three premium Bordeaux-like blends are made from grapes grown in elevated vineyards at Cooley Ranch.  The label’s intentional separation from Rodney Strong avoids the association of a high-quality upstart with a traditional producer of reasonably priced wines. The competitive field for Rowen will be a challenge for Rodney Strong, but the wines are delicious and well-priced at $55.

“Sonoma County is the best place to grow wine anywhere in the world,” Seidenfeld said.  While one region is known for particular grape varieties, Sonoma County does well with a diverse range of grapes, he said.

Here are the red wines we liked a lot:

·         Rodney Strong Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2016 ($25). You’ll be hard pressed to find a better pinot noir at this price. It’s not loaded with forward fruit like you would find in many California and Oregon pinot noirs, but it has an austere, Burgundian-like feel, medium body and reasonable tannins. Seidenfeld uses 11 heritage clones in this wine. We’ve seen this as low as $18.

·         Rodney Strong Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($35). Only in its third vintage, the Knights Valley is an example of Seidenfeld’s philosophy of pairing high-tannin staves with low tannin grapes. The tannins are integrated in a well-balanced, delicious and reasonably priced cabernet sauvignon.

·         Upshot Red Wine Blend 2016 ($28). Seidenfeld said this wine embraces his passion for blending. It is a unique combination of zinfandel, malbec, merlot, petit verdot and riesling. It certainly is delicious with rich and round dark cherry flavors, a hint of chocolate and spice. The label should be a model for all producers – it focuses on function, not design.  It has the blend, time in barrel, harvest date, timeline and more.

·         Rodney Strong Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($75). First produced in 1974, the Alexander’s Crown is the producer’s tiara. Since 2008, Seidenfeld has been mapping the vineyard to determine best harvest dates for specific vines. He can transmit this knowledge via phone to the grower so that the grapes are picked at optimum ripeness. This single-vineyard reserve wine is outstanding: soft but with undeniable tannins, dark fruit flavor, rich texture and a hint of mocha.

·         Rowen Cooley Ranch Vineyard 2015 ($55). Using grapes from a large vineyard that ranges in elevation from 500 to 2,040 feet, Seidenfeld is able to inject diversity into a blend of cabernet sauvignon (55 percent), malbec, syrah and viognier. It has generous aromatics, ripe blackberry and red currant flavors and lush mouthfeel. The wine is deceiving because the tannins aren’t bitter and so obvious.


·         Brancott Estate Letter Series T Pinot Noir 2016 ($35).  This Marlborough pinot noir has classic New Zealand character with youthful cherry flavor, medium body and a hint of spice. In the pinot noir category, it’s a good price.

·         FEL Ferrington Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2016 ($65). Vintner Cliff Lede founded FEL Wines in 2014 and his pinot noirs have had his magic dust ever since. This single-vineyard stunner has generous floral aromas and black cherry and spice flavors. Smooth and delicious, it is sold direct-to-consumer from its web site.

·         Calera Central Coast Pinot Noir 2016 ($30). Blending grapes from several Central Coast regions, Calera has created a decently priced pinot noir with good length and simplicity. Pure cherry and strawberry flavors with a hint of pepper.

Oregon’s small producers sell direct

February 17, 2019


If there is ever a wine region that embraces a person’s dream of owning a small winery, it is Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  More than 560 family owned wineries are churning out wonderful pinot noirs, chardonnays and other wines every year, and 70 percent of them are making less than 5,000 cases a year. Managing quantities this small has its challenges, but these challenges can be profitably managed if the overhead is low and the sales goals are reasonable.

Tom Fitzpatrick, owner and winemaker of Alloro Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains AVA said he doesn’t have the luxury of having staff help. “I wear many hats. There is no team of specialists in marketing, sales or production. I have fewer resources and can’t spend the attention” on some aspects of the business.

Tom Fitzpatrick, Alloro Vineyard

Tom Fitzpatrick, Alloro Vineyard

He is not alone. However, small productions allow a winemaker – often the owner – to concentrate on making those special wines we love without fear of having a lot of it to sell. If you’ve been to the Willamette Valley or enjoy its pinot noirs, you understand the thrill of finding a producer who is largely unknown in the wine world.

Said Fitzpatrick, “We’re not a wine factory. We're more like an artist who gives attention to detail. Folks who visit can talk to us and connect with who we are. It’s more than just a beverage.”

If you have visited a Willamette Valley winery you know what he means. Winemakers or a family member are often in the tasting rooms and the wines you taste can’t be bought anywhere else. You feel special and that’s the magic appeal of Willamette Valley wines, particularly its pinot noir.

So, how does a small producer survive in a competitive wine market dominated by large corporations?

Containing cost is imperative to survival, and the primary means to accomplish this task is to eliminate the high costs of distribution by selling directly to the consumer. In 2018 Oregon’s direct to consumer volume rose 19 percent – the second-best growth record in the country. Pinot noir represented more than half of Oregon’s shipments and the average price of a bottle of pinot noir was nearly $49. No state can compete with these numbers.

Steve Lutz, Lenne Estate

Steve Lutz, Lenne Estate

“I think a lot of (the small production) has to deal with pinot noir,” said Steve Lutz, owner and winemaker of Lenné Estate who has a 21-acre site in the Yamill-Carlton AVA. “Pinot noir doesn’t lend itself to mass production because it’s expensive to grow. And, our model is high quality.”

His annual production is less than 2,000 cases.

All but a handful of his cases are sold through his tasting room. He said that he has put more effort into his tasting room -- additional flights of wine, more food, tours of the facility -- to keep up with other wineries competing for the same crowd. Half of his wine is sold in state while the other half is shipped to customers in other states that allow alcohol shipments. He anticipates his wine will be on allocation in the next couple of years.

Fitzpatrick said he has seen tremendous growth in sales from his tasting room since he dropped many of his distributors in 2010. Direct-to-consumer sales in his tasting room rose from $50,000 in 2009 to $700,000 in 2018. 

Large corporations can produce overnight blockbusters because they have massive production facilities, a vast distribution system and a marketing staff. Think of wines like The Prisoner, Apothic Red and Meomi which blossomed in short time. Oregon producers have only themselves to sell their wine, albeit less of it, to customers in faraway states.

Fitzpatrick said, “It takes more time to build recognition. The secret, however, is time. Growing the business organically, boots on the ground, good reviews, referrals. Improving your signage and hosting external events” will draw more customers to tasting rooms.

We can’t get enough of the small-lot pinot noirs from the Willamette. Each one we taste speaks of the unique soils, the appellations and most importantly the winemakers who spend inordinate effort into crafting wine.

Here are some we enjoyed and that can be purchased online through the producer’s web site:

·         Lenné LeNez Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2015 ($30). This is a great value in pinot noir. Lots of forward black cherry flavors and cherry, mocha aromas with a dash of spice. Medium body.

·         Alloro Estate Pinot Noir 2015 ($40). The flagship wine of the estate, this pinot noir has a broad expression of fruit, good acidity and flavors of black cherries and spice.

·         Youngberg Hill Aspen Chardonnay 2016 ($40).  Apple and citrus flavors with a bit of mineral and a rich mouthfeel highlight this incredibly delicious chardonnay from the McMinnville AVA. It was very difficult to put a cork back in the bottle to save a bit for the next night. Hints of vanilla and coconut. If you’re looking for a place to stay, Youngberg Hill has a great inn where we’ve stayed.

·         Youngberg Hill Bailey Pinot Noir 2015 ($50). Big strawberry and garrigue aromas hand off to blackberry and black cherry flavors with hints of licorice and tobacco. Soft mouthfeel and elegance.

·         Winderlea Chardonnay 2015 ($48). This chardonnay draws grapes from several AVAs to create a lush, balanced wine with pear, mineral and tropical fruit flavors.

·         Winderlea Meredith Mitchell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2015 ($48). This single-vineyard pinot noir is one of several from this producer. It has black cherry and bay leaf aromas and ample plum, kirsch and blueberry pie flavors. Long in the finish.

·         Dobbes Family Estate Grand Assemblage Pinot Noir 2017 ($28). Simple but elegant, this medium-bodied pinot noir has strawberry and raspberry notes with a floral aroma, a dash of rosemary and purity.

·         Brooks Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2016 ($28). Reasonably priced, this simple pinot noir uses grapes from several regions of the Willamette Valley AVA. Blackberry and earthy aromas are folllowed by plum and red currant flavors.


·         Raeburn Winery Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2016 ($25). We are already fans of Raeburn’s chardonnay, so we were pleased to see that their pinot noir matches if not exceeds the chardonnay in quality. Raspberry and cherry notes are pleasantly matched with spice and vanilla notes. Very easy to drink.

·         MacPhail Wines The Flier Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 ($50). This is a big style pinot noir that is jumping out of the glass with berry, cherry tastes and smells. Some smoke notes add an element of intrigue to this impressive mouthful of pinot noir.

·         Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley 2014 ($35). This is a well-priced high quality cabernet sauvignon. Plenty of very expressive cherry/plum notes with a hint of mocha. A great package for the price.

The fallacies of chocolate and wine

(February 10, 2019)


There are fallacies in wine like there are fallacies in food. Chocolate causes acne; salt raises the blood pressure. Wine is great with chocolate; wine is great with cheese. Maybe there is some grain of truth in all of these, so they are more like exaggerations than myth. And that’s the case with wine and chocolate, an awkward match that surfaces every Valentine’s Day.

If you are planning to embark on this risky path to romantic celebration, think twice about pairing wine with chocolate.  Sometimes it’s better not to share the occasion with wine.  But if you must, we have some recommendations.

Because of the sugar and fat content of chocolate, the palate is jerked in a direction that is totally opposite dry wine. That’s why crackers and bread are served during wine tastings.

Here are five recommendations to make your chocolate-wine pairing a success:

·         Serve good chocolate and try to stay away from those syrupy fillings. Bars of white, milk and dark chocolate from a reputable confectioner are far better than a box of Whitman’s.

·         Match sweetness with sweetness. Ports are decent matches with dark chocolate. Late- harvest riesling, sauterne, tokaji, muscat or moscato  d’asti, are good choices for white chocolate. For milk or dark chocolate, we like late-harvest zinfandel. All of these wines have significant sugar content.

Although you can spend a lot of money on dessert wines, such as ice wine, there are inexpensive alternatives. A ruby port or Graham’s Six Grapes port are easy to find and cost less $20. Moscato is cheap and late-harvest rieslings, like that from Chateau Ste. Michelle, are inexpensive.

·         Serve small proportions if you are having a tasting. Many of these wines come in half-bottles (375ml). Port usually comes in a full, 750ml bottle which can easily serve 12-15 people. If people want to drink more wine, get them off the sweet stuff because an overdose of sweet wine will lead to a nasty headache the next morning.  And, heavens, think of the calories from sweet wine and chocolate.

·         If you don’t want to serve sweet wines, look to zinfandel and syrah/shiraz. You may not realize it, but many red wines have residual sugar – just not as much as the wines listed above. These wines include Meomi, Menage et Trois and Apothic Red. If you want to improve the quality, consider California zinfandel.

·         Don’t serve anything with chocolate. With many of us struggling with diets, a small piece of chocolate can end a perfect evening without the need for wine. Maybe the best combination is to cap the occasion on a sweet note and start with it with bubbles.

Here are some recommendations for sparkling wine and champagne:

·         Champagne Collet Brut ($45). We loved this smooth non-vintage brut on first sip. And, it was very popular when we served it at public tastings. All three champagne grapes – pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier – are used to create a lush, full-bodied champagne with citrus and apple notes.

·         Champagne Bruno Paillard Premiere Cuvee ($55).  Citrus, raspberry and currant flavors dominate this luxurious blend of 25 different vintages since 1985. Generous aromas, full body and length make it a champagne hallmark.

·         Champagne Palmer & Co. Reserve Rosé ($80). This blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier exudes luxury. Unusually enriched with a 40-year-old solera of pinot noir, it has more complexity and depth than most champagnes. Fresh strawberry flavors abound.

·         Champagne Palmer & Co. Brut Reserve ($60). A medium bodied champagne made from 50 percent chardonnay, 40 percent pinot noir and 10 percent pinot meunier. Pleasant yeasty nose with pear and apple elements and a nice creamy texture. The addition of about 30 percent reserve wines and extended lees aging is clearly evident.

·         Champagne Moet & Chandon Rosé Imperial ($55). Beautiful color, fine bubbles and effusive strawberry and red currant notes.

·         J Vineyards & Winery California Cuvee Brut ($27). This is a reliable wine year after year and a good value in the California sparkling wine category. A blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, it has simple pear flavors and generous aromas.

·         Mumm Napa Brut Prestige ($24). This is Mumm Napa’s signature sparkling wine that has been dazzling crowds for years.  Good complexity with bread aromas, apple and citrus flavors and a long, creamy finish.



·         Eberle Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard Selection 2016 ($25). We tasted this Paso Robles cab in a flight of considerably more expensive wines and it held its own. A great value, it has a medium body with forward blackberry and black cherry flavors, herbal aromatics, a dash of chocolate and smooth tannins.

·         Prophecy Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($11). This sauvignon blanc is true to its New Zealand profile with grassy, grapefruit flavors, but they are not as aggressive as many sauvignon blancs from this region. Crisp acidity.

·         Klinker Brick 1850 Degrees Red Wine 2015 ($20). From a legendary Lodi producer known for its old-vine zinfandel, this splendid blend of cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah and zinfandel is delicious. Forward, ripe fruit character redolent of raspberry jam and plums, it is dark in color (thanks to petite sirah) and dense. Hints of licorice and cinnamon make it a special quaff.

·         Lük Gamay Noir 2016 ($30).  Known more for its light wines of France’s Beaujolais region, gamay noir (aka gamay) makes for a delicious wine. It’s a lighter version of pinot noir but silkier. This version from the Willamette Valley has incredible purity. Black cherries, long in the finish and impossible to stop at one glass.

·         Sidecar Off the Wagon Claret 2016 ($25). Carmenere, a common grape in Chile, comprises 35 percent of this blend and provides a unique profile to this Oregon wine. Cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec  make up the rest of the blend.  Mouth-filling wine with dark fruit flavors and quaffability.


Crazy ideas to save a bad wine rarely work

(January 21, 2019)


It seems like the internet is loaded with crazy ideas of how to make something better. Rub warts with garlic to remove them. Use newspaper to clean your glasses. Put butter on burns. Use hairspray to clean ink stains. Eat chocolate to improve your sex life. You got a problem, there’s a cure in your cupboard.

Wine has its cures too.  We hear them in what we call the “Is-it-true questions.”  Here are a few we recently heard at just one public tasting we moderated:

Is it true that adding a penny to a corked wine will eliminate the offending flavors?

Early in our wine education days we were at a lunch when a winemaker poured a wine that had obvious cork taint – a chemical process that takes place after a bottle is sealed with a bad cork. A distributor wanted to save the wine and his client’s face and dropped a penny from his pocket into the expensive wine. We cringed but humored the desperate man and tried the wine.  It tasted like a dirty penny.

We also have read that a wad of plastic wrap will restore a corked wine. Indeed, polyethylene will remove trichloroanisole (cork taint) from wine but it also removes the aromatics and other positive elements.

Nothing will save a cork-tainted wine -- period. However, a copper penny may eliminate a stinky sulfur component in a wine that suffers from a fermentation flaw called “reduction.” This flaw produces a compound called mercaptans that makes a wine taste sulfuric – think a freshly lit match – or like burnt rubber. Mercaptans won’t harm you, but you’re not going to like a stinky wine.

Copper can absorb mercaptans. However, coins minted after 1982 are mostly zinc. Maybe a piece of copper piping would work better than a coin. But we pity even more the guy walking around with an old penny or a hunk of copper pipe in his glass.

The bottom line: accept that you bought a flawed wine and dump it.

Is it true that whisking a bottle of wine in a blender will save a wine that is over the hill?

Several years ago Modernist Cuisine author Nathan Myhrvold wrote that “hyper-decanting” will aerate a wine in 30 seconds, which easily beats the time it takes to adequate decant a wine naturally. We get it. But it isn’t necessary to spin your wine in the family blender to enjoy it.

Aerating wine is a good practice for almost all red wines. But hyper-decanting a wine won’t restore a wine’s vitality any more than a swig from the Fountain of Youth will make you young again. Over the hill wine, like age, is irreversible.

The thought of putting a great wine in a household blender we’ve used for sauces makes us pause. Will the hyper-decanted wine pick up last night’s tomato sauce that has stuck to the rubber top or worse the soap you used to clean it? This practice is no better than dunking into wine a dirty copper penny plucked from your grandfather’s coin collection.

Swirling a wine in your glass and witnessing its development over an hour is what makes the tasting experience so great. If you want to rush the process, use one of those little aerators that fit into a neck of a bottle. That’s a gadget that actually works.

Bottom line: save the blender for what Cuisinart intended.

Is it true that whirling a wine in the glass, then cupping your hand over the top, captures more aromatics?

The only time we cup our hand over a glass of wine is to protect it from fruit flies. That works pretty good until we just give up. But cupping a swirled glass of wine is more likely to pick up the aftershave you plastered on your face an hour ago or the garlic that was still clinging to the hand you just shook.

Called “orbital shaking” in physics, the swirling motion churns the liquid and draws in oxygen. That combination releases aromatic components such as flowers, herbs and spices. These elements help to offset the tannins and acids that some people find too pungent. But putting your hand over the top probably will abort this magic chemistry.

The bottom line: swirl the wine but save the hands for waving.

Is it true that a raisin will restore the bubbles to a sparkling wine that has gone flat?

The web is loaded with references to this science trick – it was even demonstrated on the “Today” show. But responsible publications have sorted out the truth: raisins, because of their odd and wrinkled shape, can activate what carbon dioxide is left in a glass – but they can’t create more carbon dioxide.

We tried this experiment ourselves. Even CPR couldn’t revive a sparkling wine left open for longer than an hour. Yes, a raisin dropped in a glass an hour after the sparkling wine was poured made the bubbles dance a little, but it was all about the show and not the wine. And, we pity anyone at a party who has to explain why there is a raisin in his glass.

Others say putting a spoon works better than a raisin.

The bottom line: Drink the sparkling wine before it goes flat.

 Spend more time in the cellar and less time on the internet.


·         Cooper & Thief Rye Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($60). It is hard to justify serving expensive wine to a football crowd grazing on junk food, but buy this for the cool factor. This Napa Valley wine spends six months in rye whiskey barrels and it comes in a spirit-shaped bottle. Rich and complex, it is best served alongside grilled and savory meat.

·         Casadei Sogno Toscana IGT 2016 ($20). Imported by Cline Sisters Imports, this blend of syrah, mourvedre and grenache is more like French than Italian. But a winning recipe in one country can be a winning recipe in another country. It has red berry aromas and flavors with hints of dark chocolate and spice.

·         Ramey Wine Cellars Claret 2016 ($42). Syrah – even in small amounts -- seems to be the common trick to give an otherwise Bordeaux blend some softness. We loved this serious, rich blend from David Ramey. Loads of extracted dark berry flavors with hints of vanilla and chocolate.

Bellacosa on a dream and lots of espresso


Daniel Cohn was on his second espresso at 9 a.m., his legs restlessly bouncing like an anxious teen on his first date. He will drink six more before noon just to sustain a boundless energy that will get him through a grueling schedule of 14 account visits before sundown.

 “I try to keep it under 20 espressos a day,” he quips. He’s not joking.

Cohn is the genius behind Bellacosa, perhaps the best $25 cabernet sauvignon on the market today and one that has sparked a wave of reviews, awards and magazine splashes in just a couple of years. His first vintage of 25,000 cases sold out in 10 months.

Dan Cohn, winemaker

Dan Cohn, winemaker

Cohn’s success is due in part to a business-based model: “the wine has to look like it is in a $100 bottle, it has to drink like a $50 bottle and it has to sell at $25.” But the success is also due to an engaging personality -- he could convince a priest to buy a case of his wine for Sunday communion.

Cohn grew up working for his father, Bruce Cohn, at the family winery in Sonoma County. B.R. Cohn Winery made iconic cabernet sauvignons and olive oil for decades. His dad also launched bands, such as Bruce Hornsby, and managed the Doobie Brothers for more than 40 years.

His father sold the winery in 2015, leaving Dan to choose music or wine as a career path.

“I managed a reggae band in Hawaii for a while, but that didn’t work,” he laughs.

He leveraged $1.7 million and launched Bellacosa, drawing grapes from long-time friendships he made with his father. Then he assembled more friends – legendary names from California’s most prestigious wines – for a blind tasting.

“I gave them 10 cabernets of the same price and six that cost twice as much,” he says. His wine excelled and the elite panel of advisers affirmed he had a winning recipe.

“I will not deter from balance,” he says in defiance of a popular trend to make sweet, extracted fruit bombs.

He says his debt put him on the edge of a cliff, but it also propelled him to work all that much harder to persuade people to buy his wine in a market overloaded with competition. Since 2016 he visits about 250 cities a year, hand-selling his only wine like he was Willy Loman peddling shoes in “Death of a Salesman.” He stayed in cheap hotels or with friends and ate at Taco Bell to cut expenses.

“I knew I had to sell Bellacosa one person, one bottle at a time,” he says.

He became so familiar with restaurants around the country that on several occasions he identified them by the background in cellphone photos shared by sales reps.

 “I pride myself in being accessible,” he says.

When he approaches a doubtful restaurant manager who has pricey cabernet sauvignons on the wine list, he lays down the “Bellacosa Bet.”  If his wine wins a blind tasting of cabernets selling for as much as $30 a glass, the restaurant promises to put Bellacosa on the wine list. He hasn’t lost yet.

When we met with Cohn for breakfast, the Boca Raton resident was “lapping the state” with a four-day binge tour of five Florida cities.

The hand-selling, personal touch has paid off. He has added a $100 reserve cabernet sauvignon and its 500 cases sell out too. It is an extraordinary wine with depth, character and, of course, balance. It tastes like $100, but the regular cab tastes like $50 and sells for $24.

“What’s cool is that this is a brand that didn’t exist three years ago,” he says.

There have been many instant successes in wine, but few of them have had staying power in a competitive, fickle market. Bellacosa seems to be different. In 2016 Wine Business named Bellacosa one of the top 10 wine brands. Last year Cohn formed a joint venture with Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits to give him distribution help, but he hasn’t stopped his espresso-fueled, cross-country marketing blitz.

We want to root for Cohn and Bellacosa, because they represent honest wine. While so many other producers are blending whatever grape varieties they have on hand, adding cups of sugar, and slapping on the bottle some cute label, Cohn is making a balanced cabernet sauvignon that reminds us of what has made cabernet sauvignon so great but not so gimmicky.

Don’t be surprised to see Bellacosa by the glass in your favorite restaurants – Cohn was probably there – and if you don’t find it, ask why. This is the best $25 cabernet sauvignon we’ve tasted this year.


·         Steele Bien Nacido Block N Pinot Noir 2015 ($36).  This was a favorite in a flight of California pinot noirs we recently tasted. Well balanced and richly textured, it has generous strawberry and clove aromas with cherry, spice, tobacco and earthy flavors.

·         The Butler Butler Ranch Vineyards 2013 ($50). Made by Bontara Organic Vineyards, this rich and harmonious gem blends syrah, mourvedre, grenache and zinfandel. Generous blackberry and plum aromas with a dash of espresso. Black fruit, licorice and spice flavors with dense tannins.

·         Left Coast “The Orchard” Pinot Gris Estate 2017 ($18). This is one of the better pinot gris from Oregon that we have tasted recently. It has a bold style with delicious green apple and citrus nose and flavors with a slight hint of floral notes. Try this beauty with bold fish and poultry recipes.

·         Feudi Di Sa Gregorio Rubrato Aglianico Campania 2015 ($20). From the Irpina region in Campania hard hit by Mt. Vesuvius, this delicious red wine is made from the widely planted aglianico grape. Berries, licorice and strawberries dominate this wine that is aged in only stainless steel. Good by itself but really comes alive with southern Italian tomato sauce dishes, and cheese.

Exploring those fascinating amarones

(October 22, 2018)


As if wine isn’t confusing enough, along comes the mysterious amarones from Italy to tax the brain. While most wines are simply made – pick the grapes, let them ferment and then bottle – amarones add a twist.

We’ll try to demystify the process.

An ancient process unique to the Valpolicella region of Veneto, amarone’s late-harvested grapes are dried by autumn breezes on straw mats in large, open-sided lodges until they shrivel to a raisin-like composition. The process, which takes roughly 120 days, results in 40-50 percent less juice but the grapes have a higher concentration of flavors and more sugar. The sugar is vinified to make a dry wine, although with alcohol levels of 15 percent or more. Higher concentration also means deeper color, body and balanced tannins and acidity.  The flavors are ripe and raisin-like, but complemented by soft tannins and length.

Amarone was given DOC status in 1990 and then promoted to the highest category of DOCG in 2009. The designation came with elevated standards, which in turn resulted in a higher quality of wine. Although several grape varieties are allowed, the majority of the wine is made from corvina. Other grape varieties include corvinone, rondinella and molinara.

drying racks

drying racks

With less water in the dried grapes, fermentation is retarded. The process of turning sugar to alcohol can  take as long as 50 days, and that increases the risk of volatile acidity. Alas, some of these mouth-puckering wines make it to market, which makes quality inconsistent.

Following fermentation, amarones are aged in French or Slovenian barriques for as long as 3 years.

The process used for these wines is generally called “ripasso,” but the ripasso that includes amarone pomace is often made in the spring following harvest and is much more tannic than amarone.

Alas, amarone’s labor-intensive and lengthy process drives prices beyond $50 a bottle. However, ripasso  – often called “baby amarone” – can be found for $20. Although medium in body, the leftover grape skins of the amarones give ripasso big fruit flavors.  While amarone is a special-occasion wine to serve with beef or wild game, ripasso is delightful with tomato-sauced pasta, pizza and grilled meats.

Here are several amarones and other wines from this region we recommend:

·         Masi Riserva di Costasera Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva 2011 ($50). A cru version of Masi’s Costasera, this huge blend is composed of corvina, rondinella, oseleta and moliara grapes. It has generous aromas of plums and roasted coffee beans and soft, elegant cherry flavors. This wine can age for several decades but is enjoyable now.

·         Tommasi Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2013 ($40). A blend of corvina, corvinone, rondeilla and oseleta, this wine made in a challenging vintage shows good balance of acidity and tannin. Effusive aromas of spice, licorice and black pepper and intense, defined cherry and plum flavors.

·         Tenuta Sant’Antonio Amarone della Valpolicella ”Selezione Antonio Castagnedi” 2015 ($45).  Ripe cherry and strawberry notes with a spicy aroma and hints of chocolate. Elegant in style, it is aged 2 years in new French oak. The grapes consist of corvina (70 percent), rondinella, croatina and oseleta.

·         Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella 2008 ($99). The additional bottle age of this wine gives lucky consumers a hint of what time does to amarone. Mature, rich red fruit flavors with hints of mocha and hazelnuts.

·         Zenato Amarone della Valpolicella 2013 ($63). Generous herbal and mineral aromas, medium body and ripe red fruit flavors with a dash of spice.

·         Tenuta Sant’Antonio Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore “Monti Garbi” DOC 2015 ($20). Red fruit flavors with a bit of residual sugar, medium body and soft on the palate. Delicious.

·         Tenuta Sant’Antonio Valpolicella Superiore “Nanfre” DOC 2016 ($14). Simple in design and medium in body, this is an easy drink to enjoy with light fare. Fragrant with cherry flavors and light tannins.


·         Dutton Estate Winery Pinot Noir Karmen Isabella 2015 ($46). A wonderfully complex pinot noir from the Russian River Valley that displays cherry and red currant notes with enticing spice. A balance of tart and ripe cherry fruit makes this wine interesting.

·         Reata Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2016 ($20). You get a lot of bang for your buck with this reasonable priced and rich chardonnay. Apple and oak flavors.

·         Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2013 ($35). This Italian producer makes a series of great chiantis from estate vineyards.  We liked the density and structure of this delicious and multi-layered version. The sangiovese is blended with canaiolo, ciliegiolo and colorino grapes. For a step up, the 2013 Badia a Coltibuono Montebello Toscana IGT ($60) is even more dense with a long finish and age-worthy tannins.

Sicily turning a corner in wine

(October 8, 2018)


If there ever was an unofficial ambassador for Sicilian wines, he is Corrado Maurigi. Although he is the brand manager of just Tenuta Regaleali, Corrado is a booster for all Sicilian wines. However short in stature, he stands tall in waxing enthusiasm for the underrated wines of this Mediterranean island. He talks about the beautiful hills and mountains, the coast and an island that is more like a mini-continent than an extension of Italy. He inspires you to travel to Sicily and experience the vineyards first-hand.

Corrado Maurigi

Corrado Maurigi

Since Roman times, vineyards have flourished on Sicily. It has a perfect climate with cooling offshore winds, lots of sun and just the right amount of rain. Its hills and mountains provide a variety of micro-climates and the soil ranges from limestone to clay. The variety of wines has grown as grape growers adjust to changing pockets of terroir and weather.

We met up with Corrado for an Italian lunch where he poured Tenuta Regaleali’s most prestigious wines. Some of them were made from native grapes, but one was made from traditional cabernet sauvignon. The introduction of international grape varieties has brought world attention to this otherwise forgotten region.

Quality-minded winemakers here have been fighting an uphill battle to overcome Sicily’s reputation for marsala and sweet muscats. Up until the late 1980s, most of Sicily’s grape production was sold off as bulk wines. Older generations of winemakers were more interested in quantity than establishing Sicily as a premier wine-growing region.

Not so today. A younger generation of winemakers are leading a new frontier that includes international grape varieties and modern wine-making techniques. Siciily is still digging its way out of a scarred reputation, but clearly the wines we’ve tasted from this property show no convincing is necessary.

Corrado says to build the brand and equate his country’s wines with those of France, “we always need to be honest and go deep in the vineyards to find quality.”

Regaleali is just one of several properties owned by Tasca d’Almerita. While Regaleali is located near the center of the island, there are other family vineyards in Etna and Salina.

Tenuta Regaleali was one of the earliest producers to focus on improvement. It was the first to introduce chardonnay, for instance. It emphasized low yield in the vineyards and paid particular attention to grape variety. Winemakers are still experimenting with different clones and yeasts. Most recently, it is focused on sustainable farming practices.

Regaleali’s grapes benefit from the clay soil and an elevation that ranges between 1,500 feet to 2,600 feet. The white wines, in particular, reveal the freshness and bright acidity that comes from higher elevations. Grapes grown at these heights need longer ripening times and aren’t harvested until October. Day and night temperatures vacillate by 22 degrees, which means the grapes enjoy the blazing sun during the day but cool off at night.  The hot sirocco wind keeps mold-producing moisture off the grapes at the most important times.

The indigenous nero d’avola is Siciily’s most prestigious red grape variety, but not the only one used to make great wines. We have been impressed with many grillos and, most recently, an exuberant perricone made by Regaleali. Those looking for something different in wine need to look no further.

·         Tenuta Regaleali Catarratto 2017 ($20). Corrado says the “strong skin” of catarratto grapes provides good acidity that makes this white wine so refreshing. Made only in stainless-steel tanks, it has grapefruit and citrus flavors.

·         Tenuta Regaleali Vigna San Francesco Chardonnay 2015 ($70). The first to produce chardonnay in Sicily, Regaleali has one of the most unusual chardonnays we’ve tasted. The limestone soil, the climate and the limited exposure to oak provide character and depth, but balance too. But at this price, a Sicilian chardonnay is a hard sell.

·         Tenuta Regaleali Perricone 2016 ($20). An old grape nicknamed “Guarnaccio” in 1735, perricone is just sheer fun to drink. Medium in body, it has deep color, bright red fruit flavors and a dash of spice. It is Sicily’s version of pinot noir – a versatile wine that would do well with pizza or pasta.  Although enjoyable now, this wine could age for 3-5 years.

·         Tenuta Regaleali Vigna San Francesco Cabernet Sauvignon ($70). It would be an understatement to say that we were shocked that a cabernet sauvignon this good could from a country hardly known for its international grape varieties. Corrado attributes its rich, complex quality to the clay soil and the “best vintage in the last 11 years.” The wine spends 18 months in new oak and more than 18 months in the bottle before it is released in small quantities. The first release was in 1989. Made from grapes grown more than 1,500-feet in elevation, this cab doesn’t have the harsh tannins of, say, a mountain-grown wine from California. It is an iron fist in a velvet glove: ripe and hedonistic with soft tannins but hinting of longevity.

·         Tenuta Regaleali Rosso del Conte 2012 ($70).  Made only in good vintages, this revered flagship wine abounds in complexity and depth.  Perricone provides color and structure to the nero d’avola portion that makes up 62 percent of this blend. Like the chardonnay, the wine spends 18 months in large oak barrels and even longer in the bottle before it is released. Blackberries, cherries and herbs mingle with vanilla, tobacco and a dash of licorice.

Enough with the rules

(September 17, 2018)


Look at any wine book and you’re likely to find more rules there than you did in grade school. No running in the hallways, white wine with fish, no chewing gum in class, don’t open that bottle for 10 years. Blah, blah, blah…

Rules are made to be broken.

We laugh whenever we find a recommendation beneath a recipe. Suggesting a chardonnay is appreciated, but really do we need to scour stores for a 2016 Far Niente chardonnay? OK, may an oaky chardonnay would be appreciated advice too, but for heaven’s sake there is more than one chardonnay that would work well with your Dover sole.

As our education into wine expanded over the years, we developed a common-sense approach to applying well-document rules etched in scholarly wine tomes. We don’t put ice cubes in our white wines because they dilute the flavors, but we’ll chill red wine. If you think of rules as guidelines, they make more sense. A complex, full-body red wine is great with beef, but that doesn’t mean you can’t serve an oaky chardonnay to complement the bearnaise sauce or a zinfandel to accompany a tomato sauce. 

We’ve assembled six rules we love to break:

·         MEAT/RED WINE and FISH/WHITE WINE. Arghhhh, nothing annoys us more than this ridiculous axiom. Texture is the most critical element to consider when matching food and wine. Tuna is a dense fish that does well with a Cotes-du-Rhone or a Spanish garnacha. Salmon? Serve us pinot noir any day. Again, match texture and body of wine to the food and the sauce.  Or just drink whatever you like.

·         LET AN OLD WINE BREATHE. Yeah, well sometimes we just didn’t think about this far enough in advance. Someone shows up for dinner and we’re gong to say, hold on, we need to wait two hours for the wine to breathe? Truth be told, many older wines will lose all their character and flavor after being exposed to air for 30 minutes. If anything, decant young wines. But this sounds like a rule. You do the breathing.

·         SMALL GLASSES FOR WHITE WINE. Decades ago Austrian stemware genius Georg Riedel proved to us that the shape of stemware makes a difference in how a wine smells and tastes. However, few hosts can have a set of stemware for every grape variety. Most of us have a set of small, narrow opening glasses for white and big bowls with tapered openings for red. Given such narrow choices, try using the red glass for full-bodied chardonnays. The wider the top, the more air a wine gets – and, more air, more aromas and flavors.

·         ROSÉ IS ONLY A SUMMER WINE. Indeed, the French sip their rosé by the carafe while vacationing along the Mediterranean in August. But, parlez-vous francais? Drink rosé whenever you want is our new motto. It is such a versatile wine that it goes with just about any fish, chicken, pasta,  pork, pizza, shrimp, scallops, cheese, hot dogs – even a bologna sandwich.  We pity the person who disses us for putting rosé on the dinner table.

·         DON’T BUY ANY WINE RATED BELOW 90. Don’t get us started on wine scores.  We admire Robert Parker Jr., who established the 100-point scale that put fear into French winemakers. Anything that he scores less than 90 struggles to sell. But what we all found over time is that Parker has a palate – very refined and very perceptive – that identifies the technical qualities of wine but not necessarily the shameless pleasure shared by commoners who like their sugar. You may like oaky chardonnays (he doesn’t) or medium body pinot noirs (he doesn’t).  However influenced we once were by scores and sommeliers, we now follow our own biases. Follow your palate.

·         ORDERING THE CHEAPEST WINE IN A RESTAURANT MAKES ME LOOK LIKE A SCROOGE. No, it makes you look brilliant, if the wine choice is good! A restaurant marks up a wine by 300 to 400 percent. Expensive wines are marked up less.  Here’s how we size up wine lists: if the best chardonnay available is Sonoma-Cutrer and the best red is Joel Gott merlot, buy just a glass of wine or order beer. We don’t expect a great wine list at a pizza parlor or some burger joint on the beach.  However, when confronted with an extensive wine list, we dig for the best buys. We are delighted when we find a Spanish grillo, a Greek assyrtiko or an understated Italian barbera. Don’t underestimate the value of an inexpensive, novel wine you’ve never tried. And here’s the last bit of advice: be wary of chiantis. There is so much Tuscan dreck on wine lists that we avoid anything we don’t recognize.

Tyler Florence a non-stop cut-up


Tyler Florence faced a conga line of admirers, patiently signing autographs, making small talk and shaking a non-stop parade of sweaty hands. The affable Food Network showman had just finished a two-hour dinner demonstration for a throng of guests at his host’s restaurant, Cooper’s Hawk in Naples, FL.  But he was exhausted, having left his California home at 5 a.m. Two earlier flights were canceled by fog, but the cooking show veteran was determined to make good a promise. 

“In my entire career, I’ve never missed one,” he said proudly. 

Florence, still kicking like the Energizer Bunny, is indefatigable. Not only has he been on television since 1996 – surpassed in time only by Bobby Flay – but he has written 16 cookbooks, opened a bevy of restaurants, partnered with a number of entrepeneurs, and given himself an online presence to pull in younger foodies. And now he’s launching a string of new products from Florence Family Farms. 

At 47, most self-made stars like him would have burned out. Instead, Florence just finds another venture to launch. Tonight, it was a partnership he formed with Coopers Hawk, a string of novel restaurants invented by Tim McEnery, who was in the audience this night. 

Florence’s introduction to restaurants came at age 15 when he was “just a kid scrubbing lobster thermidor off trays” at a restaurant in his home town of Greenville, SC. In 2009, he opened his first restaurant. Today, the only restaurant still operating is Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco. 

But it wasn’t just food that got his interest at an early age. Florence would learn from the winemakers from California and France who would come to the restaurant to sell their wines. It wasn’t long before Florence was hooked. 

“It was time to itch my thing for wine,” he said. 


As a lark, he blended a barrel of Lake County zinfandel in 2006 and produced 300 bottles that he gave as Christmas presents. He knew a writer at the Wine Spectator and dropped off two bottles just to get a candid opinion. He didn’t know that two bottles meant the wine would be officially judged by the magazine’s staff. It scored a 92. 

He said he knew then that wine would always be something he was doing for the rest of his life. And, it made sense. The sensory skills he gained as a chef applied to winemaking. 

He is not just a pretty face when it comes to wine. So many movie stars and well-heeled investors claim to know winemaking but really don’t. Florence effortlessly fielded questions about residual sugar, sur lies aging and balanced acidity.  

He is driven to make food-friendly wine for the masses – “back porch wines,” he calls them -- no matter what it takes to get there. He eschews boundaries and traditional blending, seeking to unlock the chains that restrict creativity. The Tyler Florence Sauvignon Blanc we tasted was true to the variety but with a smooth finish that contrasted sharply with many acidic sauvignon blancs from New Zealand and California. 

McEnery applauded Tyler Florence Wines’ appeal to the masses, which is quite similar to what his Cooper’s Hawk restaurants are doing. This is Florence’s second year with the restaurant chain. Now with 31 restaurants in the country – including one in Annapolis – and 5 more opening soon, Cooper’s Hawk is a brilliant concept. It owns no vineyards, but instead ships juice from California to Illinois for fermenting and bottling. No other brand is sold in the restaurants. 

Cooper’s Hawk has developed a wine club that now numbers more than 300,000. That makes it the largest wine club in the country – and as such commands a lot of market power that the likes of Florence are eager to tap into. 

McEnery had a devil of a time getting an audience with Frances Ford Coppola, but eventually he signed on to colloborate with Cooper’s Hawk’s winemaker to produce 14,000 cases in a one-time-only production. It sold out in 79 days. By selling directly to Coopers Hawk, a producer can eliminate the wholesaler and retailer, and make a lot of money in very short time.  

Last year Cooper’s Hawk hired Emily Wines, one of only 149 master sommeliers in the Americas.  Although they have a “lux” level of higher-priced wines, they want to move even higher with more expensive wines.  


Is Lodi finally getting its break?

(July 9, 2018)


In the three decades of writing about wine, we probably mentioned California's Lodi region maybe a few times and always in context with zinfandel. Although the region has had vineyards since the mid 19th century and has been an American Viticultural Area since 1986, it wallowed in a dismal reputation ascribed to jug wines, Tokay and dessert swill. What quality grapes it produced – and there were a lot – were blended into Napa and Sonoma county wines.

Today, Lodi – a vast region of Central Valley east of San Francisco – is considered an "emerging wine-growing region." It's emerging from a history of making substandard wines – an uphill battle it is still waging.

"I say it's not undiscovered, but unappreciated," said Melissa Phillips, vice-president of sales and marketing of Michael David Winery. She is the sixth generation Phillips involved in wine-making in Lodi. "We're going up against some of our history of producing grapes that have gone into bulk wine. Some of the younger regions don't have that bad rap to go up against."

Michael David produces Freakshow, 7 Deadly Zins, Earthquake and Inkblot. Freakshow and its wild label has been made only a handful of years but already its cabernet sauvignon is number four in national sales in the $15-20 category.

Although Michael David is a family wine, even its annual production of a million cases pales in comparison to wine giants Gallo, Constellation, Trinchero and Delicato who own more than half of Lodi's grape crop.

So, how did Lodi turn a corner?

First, the price of vineyards has driven producers out of prime regions, such as Napa and Sonoma counties.  Instead of paying nearly $200,000 an acre in Napa Valley, Phillips says an acre in Lodi can be bought for $20,000 to $30,000 an acre for bare ground.

Second, some well-respected wine producers have started to make premium wine in Lodi. Wine producers such as Tegan Passalacqua, Morgan Twain-Peterson and Abe Schoener are getting a lot of attention for their exclusive, unique wines. The result is much the same as what happened in Oregon when French burgundy producers moved in.

"In the last 15 years," said Phillips, "Lodi has gone from 7 or 8 wineries to upwards of 70."

Many will argue that Lodi's interior location is too hot to grow cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.  Indeed, daytime temperatures can reach 100 degrees, but the Mediterranean climate brings cool nights that Phillips said can get down to 60 degrees.  She said the challenge is to manage vigorous growth that comes naturally in warmer climates. "But getting sugars up is not a problem and we have no freezing temperatures. You have to work on it, but still there are a lot of positives," Phillips said.

Strangely, there seems to be tremendous growth in international grape varietals, such as albarino, verdelho, vermentino, cinsault, carignane and grenache.  Perhaps winemakers here are still experimenting to see what grows best here.

Still, Lodi's strength is clearly its zinfandel. Old vines, loam soils, a long history of making this wine and a warm climate has produced some complex zinfandel. Lodi produces more than 40 percent of California's premium zinfandel.

Generally, Lodi red wines are loaded with jammy, extracted fruit character. Here are some interesting Lodi wines to discover:

·         Lorenza Rosé 2017 ($20). The mother-daughter team of Melinda Kearney and Michele Ouellet make nothing but rosé from Rhone-style grape varieties grown on old vines in Lodi. Each of the four grape varieties are picked at different times to ensure proper ripeness. It is as close to perfection that you'll find on the market today. Dry, fresh acidity, floral aromas and peach/citrus flavors with a mineral finish.

·         Four Virtues Bourbon Barrel Zinfandel 2016 ($25). Winemaker Jay Turnipseed toasts his own bourbon barrels to limit exposure to their aggressive influence. Still, this fruit-driven wine has plenty of oak-influenced vanilla and caramel flavors. Rich, red fruit flavors attack the palate.

·         LangeTwins Sangiovese Rosé 2017.  Using a grape indigenous to Tuscany, this producer has developed a round and fruit-forward rosé with watermelon and strawberry notes.

·         The Seven Deadly Zins 2015 ($16). Always a winner year to year, this old-vine zinfandel from Lodi has layered red berry flavors with oak-inspired hints of vanilla, caramel and spice. Smooth and delicious.

·         Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel 2015 ($15). From the hot Lodi region, this wine has jammy blackberry flavors with a hint of chocolate.

·         Freakshow Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($20). A good deal at this price, this cabernet sauvignon has forward and ripe dark fruit flavors, soft tannins and oak-inspired hints of caramel, cinnamon and vanilla.

·         Predator Six Spot Red Blend 2015 ($16). Think raspberry jam and add some oak-inspired caramel and spice. This would make a good wine for the barbecued ribs.

·         Plungerhead Unoaked Chardonnay 2016 ($14). The absence of oak in this wine provides a clean and pure fruit character with tropical fruit aromas and apple, lime flavors.

Evenstads buy Burgundy house


Grace Evenstad tells of the time it registered with her that there was more than an ocean separating the Willamette Valley from Burgundy. 

She and her husband, Ken, own and operate Domaine Serene in the Willamette Valley and in 2015 they pursued their dream of making pinot noir in Burgundy by buying a 15th century chateau in Santenay. Grace was showing a French guest around Domaine Serene's vineyards when the guest asked, "Which rows are yours?" 

Inwardly, she laughed. In the U.S. an owner possesses all the vineyards. But in Burgundy a vineyard often has multiple owners, a confusing situation rooted in more than a century of history.  Clos Vougeot's 123 acres, for instance, are divided into 100 plots with 80 owners.  The Evenstads own all of their estate vineyards. In France, their 25 acres are in 20 parcels in 7 villages. 

The Evenstads are realizing greater differences between French and American winemaking as they settle into Chateau de la Crée, an estate once owned by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Phillipe the Good and founder of the Hospices de Beaune. One doesn't go into such a hallowed chateau without respect for history – and for the French who are loathe to sell property to Americans. They rejected Robert Mondavi's attempt to plant vineyards in the Languedoc many years ago.  

The Evanstads are the first Oregon wine producers to buy vineyards in Burgundy. Domaine Serene's president Ryan Harris said they made the deal in a few months, thanks to a bond between the Evenstads and the sellers, plus a lot of courting of neighbors and local officials. And, he said, "We threw a lot of parties." 

Domaine Serene produces great pinot noir and chardonnay year after year. But as much as they know how to make world-class wine, they were not prepared for what they found at Chateau de la Crée. 

Grace Evenstad says of the employees, "Everyone is now gone."  

She also said she was surprised by the lack of "science" being used at the winery and in the vineyards.  Although the owners said the vineyards were bio-dynamically farmed, it is unclear what that means in France. She said vineyards lacked adequate spacing between rows; pesticides and other chemicals from neighboring vineyards were wafting onto those of Chateau de la Crée. 

 "Things were being done by tradition," Evenstad said. 

She was quick to distance Domaine Serene from the pinot noirs being poured at a tasting we recently attended. "They aren't ours," she warned, less someone come away with an unfavorable impression of their new venture. "You will see a difference in the 2015s and beyond." 

ndeed, they didn't hold a candle to Domaine Serene's heralded Evenstad reserve pinot noir, although perhaps that was the soil and climate difference between old and new world wines. We actually enjoyed the earthy character of the 2013 Chateau de la Crée Clos de la Confrerie Monopole Santenay and the 2013 Chateau de la Crée Premier Cru Santenay Beaurepaire. There was little price difference between the wines. 

Up until now the ownership exchanges between France and the United States has been pretty much one sided. Moet Chandon was among the first to launch a sparkling wine company in California in 1973. Champagne makers Taittinger and Roederer soon followed. Then came Clos du Val, Dominus, Opus One (a partnership of Mondavi and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild). In Oregon, Robert Drouhin of Burgundy's Maison Joseph Drouhin raised eyebrows -- and the region's prestige -- when he launched Domaine Drouhin in Oregon's Willamette Valley.  

Whether the Evenstads are taking the French too much for granted remains to be seen. The French can be very temperamental and don't readily accept the notion that Americans can make better wine on their turf. Is a better pinot, for instance, defined by American producers as one with more extracted fruit, higher alcohol and a bold style?  

Bon chance, Ken and Grace. 


Not all pinot noirs are made from 'cocktail' recipes

(April 30, 2018)


Jon Priest, senior winemaker at Etude, said he feared the worst once pinot noir took flight after the hit movie "Sideways." It's hard to even imagine that we're still talking about the impact of a 14-year-old movie, but Priest's prediction that pinot noir was about to enter an enduring phase was prophetic.

Priest, who has been making pinot noir in California most of his career, was worried that the popularity of the wine would lead to new vineyards in substandard regions just to satisfy demand.

Etude winemaker Jon Priest

Etude winemaker Jon Priest

Pinot noir prefers cooler regions. Etude, for instance, uses estate grapes in Carneros that are cooled by fogs from San Pablo Bay. You won't find pinot noir in Lodi, for instance, or much of the Central Valley. Yet new regions for pinot noir have emerged after traditional sources dried up. The result is the difference between Etude's terrific pinot noirs and the Brand X born overnight.

Additionally, a grape once modeled after burgundies morphed into a Frankenstein that Priest calls the "cocktail style." These are the pinot noirs that are overly ripe, highly alcoholic and sweet.

Etude has the benefit of being owned by Treasury Wine Estates, which not only brings capital to its production but also locks in vineyards. That allows Priest to stay true to his formula for making great pinot noir without sacrifice. The consolidation of wineries dries up sources for fledgling producers and requires them to secure grapes from all the wrong places.

Alas, as the cost for pinot noir grapes rises steadily, the cost to consumers also rises. Some of the best West Coast pinot noir exceeds $50 a bottle, thus pricing out most consumers.  We've tasted some delicious burgundies from regions such as Mercurey that cost less.

Here are some terrific, albeit some are expensive, West Coast pinot noirs:

·         Etude Fiddlestix 2016 ($50). If this is any indication of the vintage, we're in for some great pinot noir from Etude. We were blown away by the generous, perfumy aromas in this well-balanced, elegant pinot noir. Made it small quantities, it may be harder to find that the 2015 Etude Grace Benoist Ranch ($47) we recently tasted. For the price, you get a load of complex black cherry and plum notes and a wallop of spice. Priest avoids American oak -- 'I'm a man of dogma" -- to keep the oak-infused flavors in check. We loved this wine.

·         Lyric by Etude Pinot Noir 2015 ($25). Using grapes from Santa Barbara, this is an entry point for the single-vineyard Etude pinot noirs. Youthful, exuberant character with bright cherry notes and a bit of tannin. Once sold only to restaurants, it is now being distributed to retailers.

·         Goldeneye Gowan Creek Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2015.($84). A powerful wine in body, this blockbuster pinot noir comes with rich texture, blueberry and black cherry flavors and hints of vanilla. Winemaker Michael Accurso calls  his marine-influenced pinot noir "wild rustsicness."

·         Migration Running Creek Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2015 ($68). Effusive strawberry aromas and luscious, ripe raspberry flavors with a dose of spice.

·         Ponzi Classico Pinot Noir 2015 ($43). Reasonably priced for what you get here, the Classico blends grapes grown throughout the Willamette Valley. We enjoyed the fresh raspberry and black cherry flavors, floral and herbal aromas, and balanced acidity.

·         Ponzi Tavola Pinot Noir 2016 ($27). This pinot noir flies off the shelf so fast that winemaker Luisa Ponzi would prefer that its fans step up to one of the other wines in its fabulous portfolio. At $27 it's easy to see why people buy this by the case. Made as an everyday pinot noir, the Tavola has simple and medium body flavors of black cherries. Grapes are sourced from Ponzi's Avellana Vineyard.

·         Benziger Russian River Valley Reserve 2016 ($45). Made from organically grown grapes, we love this balanced pinot for its pure fruit character and its restraint. Black cherries, a dash of spice and vanilla. 

·         Landmark Overlook Pinot Noir 2016 ($25). One of the great values in quality pinot noir, this medium-bodied version sourced from three counties shows nice balance with aromas of raspberries, cinnamon and spice. Flavors are redolent of cherries, raspberries and spice – everything nice.

·         Sea Smoke "Ten" Pinot Noir 2015 ($82). This wine uses all 10 of the clones planted on the producer's organic- and biodynamic-certified estate vineyard. Using the best barrel selection of the vintage, the result is expectedly spectacular. Very concentrated and dark, "Ten" is a big, robust pinot noir for those who are hard to impress. Floral aromas with blueberry and red berry flavors, enduring spice notes, fine tannins and good finish.

·         Left Coast Latitude 45 Estate Pinot Noir 2015 ($38).  We loved this juicy and delicious pinot noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley.  Classic red cherry flavors with hints of vanilla and cocoa.

·         Perfusion Vineyard San Francisco Bay Pinot Noir 2014 ($40). You don't often see a wine from this AVA, located along the western side of Contra Costa County, but this micro-batch producer has a winner. Ripe, forward cherry and raspberry flavors with hints of vanilla and spice.

·         Steele Bien Nacido Block N Pinot Noir 2014 ($36). Jed Steele has produced a series of single-vineyard pinot noirs from Santa Barbera and Carneros that are reasonably priced for what they deliver. We like the Bien Nacido the best. The vineyard is well-known and respected among pinot noir producers and fans. Steele uses grapes from the "N" block because of its intense fruit. Strawberry and cherry flavors abound with hints of spice and vanilla.

·         Ghostwriter Pinot Noir Santa Cruz County 2015 ($30). This outstanding pinot noir stood out at a recent tasting. Already showing well we tasted an expressive tableau of wild cherries, cola with a bare hint of oak that filled the mouth with pleasure. Don’t miss this wonderful pinot noir, if California pinot noir is your passion.

·         Erath Oregon Pinot Noir 2015 ($19). Always a great value in pinot noir, this medium-bodied wine has big, bold aromas and forward black cherry and raspberry flavors.   



It's all in the blend....

(March 18, 2018)


Given the recent media attention on red blends, one would think that the idea of combining grape varieties into a single wine is a novel concept. Hardly. It's rare to find a Bordeaux made from one grape variety. Rhone Valley producers blend as many as 13 grape varieties into their wines. Italian chianti and Spanish riojas blend noble grape varieties with their native grapes. Blended wine has become as common as tourists. As governing bodies of wine growing regions here and abroad give in to winemakers wanting more freedom, conventional winemaking rules are fading.

In the United States, a wine labeled as a specific grape variety must contain at least 75 percent of that grape. But winemakers are giving up that moniker for the freedom to add more grapes and label their products "red blend." Sales of blended wines grew nearly 8 percent over last year and sell more by volume than pinot noir or merlot, according to Nielsen.

How times have changed. Historically, wine growers have proudly clung to indigenous varieties and denounced any winemaker who dared to introduce another region's grapes. Angelo Gaja was pilloried when he added cabernet and merlot to the native nebbilo in his barbarescos. Yet today his expensive wines are considered among the best in Piedmont.

Gaja had foresight. More varieties give wines more dimension and depth. Some grape varieties simply can't produce complexity – sangiovese can be acidic and one-dimensional in Chianti, but blended with merlot it shows a softer, more fruity character. Long ago, French burgundians secretly blended syrah with their underripe pinot noir. Today, however, Burgundy is one of the few remaining regions that will not allow blends.

Zinfandel, a common base for many inexpensive red blends in California, is often joined by syrah, petite sirah, merlot and other varieties. The insanely popular Apothic Red, a breadwinner for E&J Gallo, is a sweet blend of primarily zinfandel, syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.  Long before zinfandel blends became popular, Marietta Old Vine has produced an extraordinary non-vintage red blend at a reasonable price.

Here are a few blends we recently tasted:

·         Cline Cashmere Red Blend 2015 ($15). Cline is best known for its zinfandel and mourvedre. This truly exquisite blend of mourvedre, syrah and grenache coats the mouth with ripe red berry flavors and chocolate-covered cherries. Good value.

·         Dutcher Crossing Winemaker's Cellar Kupferschmid Red Wine 2014 ($39). From the Dry Creek Valley, this blend of unspecified red grapes offers good depth and complexity with fine tannins and upfront strawberry and cherry fruit with a dash of dried rosemary.

·         Bootleg Prequel Red Blend 2014 ($35). Syrah and petite sirah combine to deliver a fist-load of blackberry and plum fruit flavors with good depth and hints of black pepper. Rich and long in the finish.

·         Paraduxx Candlestick Napa Valley Red Wine 2014 ($58). Duckhorn's Paraduxx lineup is a fashion parade of exotic world blends. This one pairs syrah with grenache to produce a bold dark fruit profile with fine tannins and oak notes of vanilla and spice.  The Paraduxx Atlas Peak Red Wine ($80) marries the famous sangiovese grown on the slopes of Atlas Peak with cabernet sauvignon. Delicious!

·         ONX Reckoning Estate Grown Paso Robles Templeton Gap District 2014 ($58). An enchanting blend of 63 percent syrah, 21 percent malbec, 11 percent grenache, and 5 percent petite sirah. Luscious blackberry and blueberry nose and mouth coating flavors. Smooth with soft tannins, a delight to drink.     

·         Trinity Hill The Trinity 2014 ($17). Merlot, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, malbec and syrah provide an interesting array of flavors with plum and dark fruit flavors, soft mouthfeel and hedonistic character.

·         Ruca Malen Aime Red Blend Mendoza Argentina 2016 ($9-12). This fantastic blend of malbec, bonarda, cabernet sauvignon and merlot is an amazing value. Beautiful complex berry flavored and scented red wine with interesting mocha and chocolate notes. Round but with enough acidity to accompany food.

·         Leese-Fitch California Firehouse Red 2015 ($12). Just about everything in Leese-Fitch's popular portfolio is a good value. This eclectic blend of petite sirah, syrah, zinfandel, merlot, mourvedre and tempranillo may not have focus, but it is packed with jammy dark berry fruit and endless hints of chocolate, vanilla and espresso.

·         Line 39 Excursion Red Blend 2016 ($15). A wide collection of petit verdot, petite sirah, zinfandel and merlot make a rich and jammy quaff in wine. The variety of grapes offer a variety of flavors ranging from plums to chocolate.

·         Chateau Ste Anne Bandol 2014 ($42).  Mourvedre, cinsault and grenache grapes are blended in this extraordinary, old-world wine from southern France. It bursts from the glass with an aged, floral and earthy bouquet. Black cherry, herbs and savory flavors abound. It is very different.

·         Arinzano La Casona 2010 ($40). More complex with intense floral aromatics, persistent and focused cherry and dark fruit flavors, fine tannins and long finish. The tempranillo (75 percent) is blended with merlot. This wine will age well. 

·         Upshot Sonoma County Red Wine Blend 2015 ($30). Made by Rodney Strong Vineyards, this sumptuous blend includes zinfandel, merlot, malbec, petit verdot and riesling. Good aromatics, soft tannins, and dark fruit flavors.

·         Gabbiano Dark Knight 2016 ($17). This Italian blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sangiovese captures the best of these grape varieties. Smooth texture with copious notes of oak-inspired mocha and spice to accent the ripe berry flavors.

·         Decoy Sonoma County Red Wine 2015 ($25). Merlot dominates this blend with cabernet sauvignon, syrah, cabernet franc and petit verdot playing the support role. Rich blackberry and cherry fruit flavors with a dash of vanilla and caramel.



(February 19, 2018)


We were recently listening to Ray Coursen of Elyse Winery being interviewed by Levi Dalton on the fabulous podcast, "I'll Drink to That." Coursen, who has been involved in winemaking since the early 1980s, was reminscing about "old school Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon." 

He said growers had to plant cabernet sauvignon vines too far south just to get adequate ripeness. The riper the grape, the more sugar and thus the more alcohol. Today's cabernets – grown farther north, thanks to global warming – are ripening so well that they are producing wines with higher alcohol levels. These are bigger wines, often quite different than the Bordeaux style of wine made with the same grapes. Those made in France come from a cooler climate and thus aren't as ripe or alcoholic.  

Coursen says he has moderated his use of oak to return to this old school cabernet sauvignon and make wines with more pure fruit character.  

In red wine, oak introduces flavors of mocha, caramel, toffee, spice and vanilla.  Coursen wants to ease off on those additional flavors. 

Today he ages only 60 percent of his cabernet sauvignon in new French oak for about 21 months. The rest goes into neutral, used oak barrels. He sometimes returns the wine aged in new oak to used oak. And, he holds the finished product in bottle for an additional 18 months before releasing it. He still gets the complexity and softness without these artificial flavors. 

We just went through a bunch of Napa cabernet sauvignon. Here are some of our favorites. Oak aging is noted when known. 

  • Mount Veeder Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($100).  A blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec and petit verdot, this big wine from the talented winemaker Janet Myers sets the course for Napa Valley character. Dark in color, it shows off layered aromatics of currants, mineral, herbs and pepper. Flavors are of black cherries, plums, coffee, vanilla and a dash of pepper and licorice. (20 months in small, new oak barrels).  

  • Clos du Val Estate Hirondelle Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($120). This is an enormous wine in both body and flavor.  From the Stag's Leap District – a source for some of Napa Valley's best cabernet sauvignons – it has effusive floral, blueberry and clove aromas followed by dense cherry and blackberry and oak flavors. Long in the finish and well textured.  (New French oak: 60 percent). 

  • Duckhorn Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($98). We just love the old cabernets that have been made in Rutherford for decades – Beaulieu, Inglenook, Freemark Abbey, Caymus, Grgrich Hills. This one from Duckhorn has that classic Rutherford profile: dusty tanins, richness, black fruit flavors, balance and a touch of hint and mineral.  Duckhorn has a string of cabernets that reveal their terroir – Howell Mountain, Patzimaro Vineyard and Three Palms Vineyard. Each of them is unique but all have depth of character, richness and powerful complexity. (18 months in oak). 

  • Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($29). It's always nice to get a reality check after sampling a lot of odd wines. Robert Mondavi Winery has been making cabernet sauvignon for decades and stays the course with this reliable edition. Napa Valley cabernet forms the foundation of a solid performance. Forward in style, its copious fruit flavors and hint of tobacco make it drinkable now. 

  • Gamble Family Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($50). It seems like everything Tom Gamble touches turns to gold. Although made in small quantities, his wines are worth the search. This Napa Valley cab has an earthy feel with forward blackberry flavors, excellent balance and notes of chocolate and coffee. (20 monthns in French, Hungarian and American oak barrels).  

  • Mi Sueno Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($75). New to us, this producer impresses with the palate with generous aromas of plums and mocha followed by flavors of ripe black cherries and hints of oak-inspired caramel and vanilla. Good for cellaring.   (New French oak: 55 percent for 24 months). 

  • Spottswoode Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($85). Spottswoode puts a lot of effort into this signature Bordeaux blend of fruit from some terrific vineyards in Napa Valley.  Cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec and merlot team up with cabernet sauvignon to produce a sturdy assembly of alluring aromatics and complex, textured dark fruit flavors. Long finish.  (New French oak: 40 percent for 20 months). 

  • Flora Springs Triology 2015 ($80). Flora Springs was a pioneer in making a Bordeaux blend – its first was in 1984. It's no surprise, then, that experience and good fruit sources makes them a leader in hedonistic blends. Extracted dark fruit flavors with hints of pepper, chocolate and vanilla. Round tannins suggest good things to come. (New French oak: 85 percent; 15 percent American oak for 22 months). 

  • Priest Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($48). This classic cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley boasts generous black cherry notes, fine tannins and full body. Delicious now or can be cellared for several years.  

  • Stags Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($73). A blend of estate grown and purchased fruit make up this enticing elegant Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Black cherry fruit notes dominate with ripe velvety soft tannins. Very easy to drink. (New French oak: 33 percent; 10 percent in American oak).  

Paul Mas wines excel in the Languedoc

(Jan. 31, 2018)


As French wine regions go, they don’t get any bigger than Languedoc-Roussillon. Located in the southwest corner of the country, the region once has about 700,000 acres under vine. Not only does it produce more wine than the entire United States, but it is the single largest wine-producing region in the world. It accounts for nearly one-third of the wine produced in France and nearly 40 percent of its exports. 

Yet when was the last time you had a bottle of wine from this region? Big isn’t always better and winemakers in this region have historically produced mediocre wines with an emphasis on quantity. This kind of a business plan is doomed to fail -- and it has. Today there are fewer wineries, less wine produced and less land planted to vineyards. No other wine region in the world to our knowledge has suffered such a steep decline. 

But there are significant signs that the region can regain its luster behind the leadership of a handful of producers determined to put quality first. 

Jean-Claude Mas talks to his vineyard crew.

Jean-Claude Mas talks to his vineyard crew.

One such producer is Jean-Claude Mas who has adopted a number of domaines in Languedoc since he took over his family 42-acre estate in 1999. He launched Domaine Paul Mas, named after his father, in 2000. 

We were literally awestruck when we tasted his wines because they were so significantly better than what we have tasted in the past from this vast region. Because vineyards are relatively cheap here, Mas is able to keep prices down and deliver a lot of great wine for reasonable prices. Consumers should take advantage of the prices while this region is in its renaissance stage. 

What is Mas doing differently? 

“There are two parts. First, everything is managed by one guy – me – and with one technique and surrounded by people who share my philosophy,” he said via phone while visiting New York City. “Seventy-percent of the wine made in Languedoc is done by co-op and negociant. But I produce everything I sell.  

"Second, you need to have a winery with the best possible conditions – temperature control, control of the use of oxygen, etc. We have to know how the grapes behave," he said. 

Mas said in the old days his father and grandfather, like other winemakers, would work a bit and then relax. 

"They weren't trying hard to make better wines," he said. "You can make a good living without trying too hard." 

Contrarily, Mas is constantly walking through the vineyards, tasting the grapes and paying attention to every aspect of the winemaking. He's not making his fathers' wine. 

The 13 estates he now owns in all of the key areas of the Languedoc cover more than 1,600 acres and he has agreements for grapes from the owners of another 3,200 acres of vineyards. That's a big source of fruit for a winemaker to draw from. 

Although he grows 45 different grape varieties, the primary reds include syrah, grenache, carignan and mourvedre. These grapes, like those used in Rhone wines, make intensive, layered wines. Mas wines, though, add more structure and texture. His mission is to make an every-day wine with every-day luxury. 

"To achieve wine with an enticing character, you have to have nice and noble aromatics – fruits, flowers, spices – good mouthfeel and complexity." 

Generally, his wines are opulent without being over-extracted. 

Mas hopes he is leading the way to redemption, but acknowledges that many fellow winemakers have given up. But he feels he is on a launch pad – getting prepared for the big moment when Languedoc will be held equal to Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. 

Here are some of the Paul Mas wines we loved: 

  • Chateau Paul Mas Coteaux du Languedoc Clos des Mures 2015 ($20). This is the reason we urge people to look here for wines that overdeliver. This blend of syrah (83 percent), grenache and mourvedre is a prime example of what can come from a talented winemaker. Jean-Claude Mas has crafted a dense, delicious and full-bodied wine when others are often satisfied with something much simpler. It has earthy, cassis, violet and spicy aromas and dark berry, mineral flavors. Soft mouthfeel makes it drinkable now. 

  • Chateau Paul Mas Coteaux du Languedoc Vignes de Nicole L'Assemblage Blanc 2015 ($16). This is an incredible wine for the price.  An eclectic blend of chardonnay, sauvignon, viognier and picpoul, it shows off pear and passion fruit aromas with a creamy, ripe pear flavor and a hint of mineral. Delicious. 

  • Chateau Paul Mas Coteaux du Languedoc Belluguette 2016 ($20). A very interesting blend of vermentino, roussanne, grenache and viognier, this is a spirited and racy white wine that makes for a good aperitif or a complement to oysters and clams.  

  • Domaine Paul Mas Cotes Mas Cremant de Limoux Rosé ($16).  A blend of chardonnay, chenin blanc and pinot noir, this sparkling wine strikes a new pose for those expecting champagne. The chenin blanc gives the wine a soft mouthfeel and peach flavor. Add to that a dose of grapefruit and you have a delicious, well-priced aperitif. 

Tasting the difference between old, new world wines

(January 24, 2018)


Over the years we have often heard a wine described as having an "Old World" style. We had a vague idea what that meant, but until recently we never gave the comparison much thought. As winemakers travel between wine growing regions to learn new and better techniques, one would think that the line between the two worlds has blurred and that any such association today is fraught with generalization.

Not entirely. A recent tasting we put together for a group of wine enthusiasts showed that there are still contrasting styles. At the risk of over-generalizing, we offer an explanation of what is meant by these terms. Understanding the differences can help you determine the style of wines you like and thus make your shopping experience much easier.

Old World wines – principally those from European countries -- tend to be subtle, less alcoholic, higher in acid and more restrained. This is largely a result of cooler climates that don't allow grapes to ripen as well. But, the wines are also a product of tradition. Generations of Old World producers have for centuries made wines exclusively for their villages and to accompany the local cuisine. Unlike New World producers who emphasize the name of the producer and the grape variety on the label, Old World winemakers proudly focus on the name of the village. This speaks volumes about the terroir focus of European producers.

New World producers -- Australia, New Zealand, North and South America, etc. -- have embraced new technology and science to produce consistent wines in much warmer climates.  Whereas Old World producers are more likely to be satisfied with whatever Mother Nature hands them, New World producers are willing to manipulate the juice to achieve certain results. It's what New World entrepeneurs often do.

The differences between the two worlds can be found in the glass, as our tasting vividly revealed. A sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley was clean, simple, medium bodied while a New Zealand sauvignon blanc was bold, stylish and grassy.

The red wines were just as different. We liked the contrast between a Spanish monastrell and a California mourvedre (same grape). The Rioja monastrell was rustic with earthy, barnyard aromas, medium body and subtle spice and oak flavors. The Cline Mourvedre -- a perennial favorite of ours -- was fruit-forward with ripe cherry flavors and more oak influences, such as spice, vanilla and even a dash of chocolate. The first would do better with food than the ripe and jammy Cline.

Two new world cabernet sauvignon blends -- Unanime from Argentina and Columbia Crest H3 from Washington state -- were classic contrasts to a simple Bordeaux blend from Chateau Fonseche.  The Bordeaux, made in a cooler climate, revealed blackberry and currants while the other two had more black cherry flavors that come from a warmer climate. 

The other pairing was a syrah blend from Cotes du Rhone and two shirazes from Australia. The Rhone has a funky, earthy nose while the Australian components had bright, jammy fruit flavors.

Not to be underestimated is the desire of New World producers to finally back off its fruit-forward, highly extracted and alcoholic style and bring their wines more in line with the European model. Alas, American consumers tend to favor ripe, bold wines with a dash of residual sugar, but these are not food-friendly.

At the end of our tasting, one attendee said the comparisons allowed her to better define the kinds of wine she likes. The next time she goes blindly into a wine shop or restaurant she will tell a merchant that she's looking for an Old World wine that is subtle and less ripe. That was music to our ears. It's not that she won't enjoy a New World wine, but she knows what her palate likes and she can intelligently describe it.

Such comparisons are invaluable in understanding that geography and technology between continents have great influence in taste.


Greg Norman, "The Shark, still hitting them


Australian golf legend Greg Norman is often remembered for blowing a six-stroke lead in the 1996 Masters Tournament, but that’s about his only colassal breakdown. A shrewd businessman, the “great white shark,” as he is known, designed more than 100 golf courses and launched 14 businesses. And, despite missing many notable clutch shots, he has won two British Open Championships and was ranked number one golfer in the world for 331 weeks. 

But it is his wine empire -- launched the same year he infamously lost the Masters Tournament -- that hasn’t missed a beat despite the challenges of a competitive industry. 

Greg Norman and daughter, Morgan.

Greg Norman and daughter, Morgan.

Norman wines are immensely benefited by instant name recognition. Not only does he have built-in resort markets that sell his wine, but anyone who golfs is more likely to buy a bottle with his iconic shark emblazoned on the label. His daughter, Morgan, who we recently joined to taste through the wines, said her father opens golf courses in attractive markets, builds brand identity, then introduces his wine there. No wonder the wily entrepreneur is called “the shark.” 

Morgan said her father’s goal has always been to make a wine that is affordable and that can be served with dinner any night of the week.  Although his name is associated first with his homeland, he has been making wine in California since 2005 and now makes wine in New Zealand.  He does not own vineyards, but instead draws from the vast vineyard holdings of his partner, Treasury Wine Estates. Indeed, across the board, his wines are simple, unadorned, affordable and easy to drink -- just as he wants. 

What we liked most about these wines is that they are not overblown. The wines – most of which sell for under $15 – are balanced with average alcohol and moderate fruit extraction. They complement food and are more medium-bodied than others at this price range. 

We thought Greg Norman, now 62, would have been lulled into making those over-extracted Australian wines that flooded the market a decade ago, but Morgan said her dad is stubborn. “He doesn’t play into trends,” she said. 

Although most of the wines are incredible values, there is a reserve shiraz that sells for $50. The 1999 version of this wine was rated number 8 in the Wine Spectator's list of Top 100 wines. 

Until then, said Morgan, the brand was known only as a “golfer’s wine.” But the ranking “put us on the wine map,” she said. Even at $50, it’s a good buy. 

Here are our favorite Greg Norman wines: 

  • Greg Norman Estates Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($14). This sauvignon blanc doesn’t fit nicely with the New Zealand profile because it doesn’t have bracing acidity. The classic pineapple and citrus flavors are simple and enjoyable. 

  • Greg Norman Estates Eden Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($14).  Only a third of the wine sees oak barrels and malolactic fermentation, so it has a clean and refreshing character with tropical fruit and pear flavors and just a dash of coconut and vanilla. Long finish. 

  • Greg Norman Estates Limestone Coast Cabernet-Merlot 2014 ($14). One of the best-selling wines in the portfolio, this iconic Australian blend has copious floral and spice aromas, dark berry flavors and lingering hints of clove and vanillin oak. Merlot comprises only 10 percent of the blend, making the cabernet sauvignon character dominant. 

  • Greg Norman Estates Limestone Coast Shiraz 2014 ($14). Lively and fresh black cherry and red currant flavors with a hint of pepper and spice. Very quaffable.  

  • Greg Norman Estates Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($14). A near even split of the two grape varieties, this blend is dark in color and packed with ripe cherry and cranberry flavors. Smooth mouthfeel and lingering finish make it a great quaff. 


Tinto Figuero has released several new vintages of its excellent line of tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero. Three separate bottlings – one aged 15 months in barrel, a second aged for 12 months in barrel and the third from old vines – show the depth and character that comes from this DO region. 

Tinto Figuero's Vinas Viejas (old vines) 2014 ($68) is a special wine with elegance, velvet texture and finish. Intense notes of red currants, raspberries and anise give it a broad palate we couldn't stop enjoying.  

We also enjoyed the Tinto Figuero 15 2013 ($66), with its dense darker fruit flavors and layered flavors of cocoa, spice and black pepper. 

The producer's Tino Figuero 4 2016 ($22) is reasonably priced and gives you an idea of what the producer and region can do. 

 Costa-Browne pinots too extracted?

(December 27, 2017)


Pinot noir has followed a tortured trail, sometimes uphill but eventually in a direction that gained an audience in this country. Bested by the delicate pinot noirs of Burgundy, American wine producers struck a profile that over time would be unquestionably described as ripe, alcoholic and hedonistic.  Consumers and critic liked the change, even if French producers did not. 

Some California and Oregon pinot noirs became so jammy you could spread them on toast. But it is these pinot noirs that consumers stood in line to purchase at heavenly prices that customarily exceeded $50. Even today it is a challenge to find a good pinot noir for anything less. 

But now comes a shocking announcement from Kosta Browne that its famously extracted pinot noirs – arguably the ones that started the trend – would be replaced by a leaner style. Whether any other producers follow suit remains to be seen, but the shift at this iconic and famous winery is seismic. 

The new philosophy, first reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, coincided with the announcement that Dan Kosta and Michael Browne are stepping down from the company they founded in the late 1990s. Their wines – sold mostly through its club – now cost more than $60 and you have to wait three years to get an allocation.  

Kosta told the Chronicle that he realized that his pinot noirs were being used by new winemakers as an example of what not to do. The robust, very ripe pinot noirs were seen as over the top, especially by wineries that were sensing a change among younger consumers.  

We’re not sure if that reversal is entirely true quite yet when we see the continued success of the extracted, sweet Meiomi pinot noir, but we have to wonder if pinot noir isn’t on the verge of the same trajectory as chardonnay that morphed from buttery, oaky fruit bombs to lean, unoaked and balanced wines. Perhaps in both cases, less is better. 

We put this into perspective while recently tasting a series of single-vineyard pinot noirs made by Carmel Road. These wines benefit from ocean breezes that cool the grapes in Monterey County vineyards. The wines are refreshing: balanced with good acidity and bright fruit character.  

We asked Kris Kato, Carmel Road's winemaker, about how he achieves balance. 

Kris Kato, winemaker for Carmel Road

Kris Kato, winemaker for Carmel Road

"To me, balance is not just one style of wine. You can have bigger, more powerful wines that still achieve balance, as well as lighter, brighter, more acid-driven wines that are well balanced. Mother Nature obviously has such a big influence, as well as vineyard location, climate, harvest timing, clone, etc. Pretty early on you get a feel for what the wine is giving you, and I like to push it where it wants to go rather than force the wine in a certain direction. To me, and for my Carmel Road wines, balance is having all elements of the wine working in harmony and not having any one aspect dominate." 

The question is whether abandoning the riper, extracted style will disappoint consumers who clearly like these pinot noirs. 

Said Koto, "I believe there are consumers out there for every style of wine, and find some prefer bigger, bolder pinots and some like a lighter and more reserved style. I think consumers newer to wine certainly appreciate an approachable style that's easy to enjoy and pairs well with food. I strive for balance, texture and fruit expression in the wines, and believe Monterey provides those amazing characteristics." 

Here are a couple of Carmel Road pinot noirs we really enjoyed: 

Carmel Road North Coast Monterey Pinot Noir 2014 ($55). This Arroyo Seco producer benefits from the cooling fogs and fierce winds that protect the grapes from ripening too fast. As a result, the North Coast single-vineyard pinot noir is restrained and balanced with bright cherry and strawberry notes. It is very full-bodied. We also liked the South Crest single-vineyard pinot noir ($55) from the same AVA.  

Carmel Road Panorama Pinot Noir 2014 ($35). One of the more reasonably priced pinot noirs, this estate wine out-delivers. More lush than the small-lot pinot noirs reviewed previously, the wine has assertive black cherry and floral aromas with blackberry and spice flavors. 


Unsure what to do with that fruitcake this year other than re-gift it? Eat it – and chase it with wine. 

The sweetness of this dense cake calls for a serious quaff – port, for instance. If you really don't like fruitcake, you'll at least enjoy the port. Graham's 20 Year Old Tawny Port ($65) is a very special drink that shows what age can do for port. Warre's Warrior ($19) may not have the same aged flavors or finesse, but it is a luscious accompaniment to dessert. 


Looking for an inexpensive sparkling wine to get you through the holidays? Here are a few Italian proseccos to try: 

  • La Marca Prosecco ($19). This easy to find prosecco also comes in cute 187ml bottles, which are perfect for toting to a tailgate or just a party where they can be chilled in a bucket alongside beer. Citrus notes dominate the aromas and are followed by lush peach flavors with the classic dash of prosecco sweetness. 

  • Adami Garbel Brut Prosecco Treviso ($15). Simple but generous in flavors, this sparkling wine offers a broad palate of ripe stone fruit and melon flavors. 

  • Mionetto Prestige Extra Dry Prosecco ($14). Easy to find in most markets, this respectable version is "extra dry," which strangely means "off-dry," which means "slightly sweet," which no one wants to say. But, slightly sweet is what you get in most proseccos. Made from organically grown glera grapes, it has green apple notes. 



Duboeuf struggles with  beaujolais' image and weather

(December 11, 2017)


More than 25 years ago we met Georges Duboeuf, the French winemaker who put Beaujolais on the international wine map. He was parading his region’s unique nouveau – released shortly after harvest and well before any other French wine – as a harbinger of what wine was to come from that year's crop. Everyone loves to party, as they say, and the release of this fresh, easy-to-drink gamay gave people a cause to celebrate year after year. 

But it always seemed to be just that – a frivolous reason to party. Getting consumers to think of the wine as something more serious has been a challenge. While Beaujolais nouveau is a hot seller, it also is a mental roadblock to consumers who never move beyond it to the excellent beaujolais crus that offer so much more 

That was Duboeuf’s challenge when we met him the in the 1980s, and it is still his challenge today at age 84. As he was promoting his wine in Japan this year, his son Franck was in New York City preaching the beaujolais gospel. At least Georges has help. 

Our pitch isn't any different than that of the Duboeufs: Beaujolais is worth discovering. It is refreshing, easy to drink, inexpensive and versatile. It may not be a wine to pair with venison, but you won’t find a better wine to go with hamburgers, pizza, pasta, fowl and even salmon. But to appreciate the region, you need to move beyond the nouveau and discover the crus named after one of 10 villages. 

Franck and his father, Georges Duboeuf

Franck and his father, Georges Duboeuf

In a phone conversation from his New York hotel room, Franck admits the challenge is still introducing gamay Beaujolais to the consumer.  That isn’t his only challenge. In the last several years, hail has destroyed much of the crop across the region. This vintage alone he has lost two-thirds of the grapes to hail and frost. 

“Mother Nature is taking her revenge,” Duboeuf says.  “More and more we have very violent weather patterns.” 

Global warming has even pushed up the harvest date to August. 

“When I was younger, it was common to start picking in mid-September or early-October,” he says. 

He says they can take advantage of the long summer days, but they have to change the picking order and carefully monitor grape maturity. 

“It’s a challenge we have to turn into an opportunity,” he says. 

Just for kicks, we once aged several Beaujolais crus for several years and were astounded by the results. The gamays may have lost their youthful freshness, but what emerged was a mature, silky and viscous fruit bomb. Duboeuf says he has tasted his family wines from 20 years ago and they are “fantastic.” 

With new generations of wine consumers entering the market, Beaujolais is regaining its mojo. Younger generations like to experiment and they don't want to wait a decade for a wine to mature. Beaujolais is perfect for them – and, for that matter, anyone looking for an inexpensive and easy wine to drink now. 

Here are some special cru beaujolais from Duboeuf's extensive portfolio to try: 

  • Domaine de Javerniere Morgon 2015 ($20). Our favorite from Morgon, this stunning, rich wine has beautiful dark color, sweet black cherry and kirsch aromas with dark berry flavors, a long finish and surprising, soft tannins to give it more body.  

  • Georges Duboeuf Flower Label Morgon 2015 ($20). Duboeuf's "Flower Label wines" come from vines that are as old as 50 years. Very seductive yet powerful, it has wild berry and red cherry flavors, long finish and dash of cranberries and plums with an earthy texture. 

  • Domaine des Rosiers Moulin-a-Vent 2015 ($24). Powerful and robust, this full-bodied wine has intensive floral aromas, firm tannins and notes of blackberries, cassis and spice. This one can easily age.  

  • Chateau de Saint-Amour Saint-Amour 2015 ($22). Intense dark fruit aromas with precise and narrowly defined flavors, full body and rich texture. Excellent balance and acidity with silky tannins make it one of our favorites. 

  • Clos des Quatre Vents Fleurie 2015 ($22). We were swept up by the racy and bright-fruit character of this Fleurie, a region we always thought produced lighter wines. This one is bold, however, with black cherry and plum notes and a hint of mineral. 

  • Domaine du Riaz Cote-de-Brouilly 2015 ($20). A wine that can be aged, this Cote-de-Brouilly has good tannins and an intriguing blueberry note that separates it from other cru beaujolais. Luscious fruit with hints of leather and mineral. 

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.


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.