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"Wine Etc." is a weekly syndicated column that appears in newspapers and on newspaper websites around the country. Its home newspaper group is Capital Gazette Communications/Tribune Media at capitalgazette.com).

Celebrate Earth Day with organic wines

(April 20, 2017)


By now you most likely have heard about organic wines. You also may have heard the terms "biodynamic" and "sustainability" so often that you don't know their difference or care enough to find out. But you should and Earth Day – April 22 – is a good time to do it. 

For decades Earth Day, created by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson in 1970, was celebrated about as much as National Jellybean Day, which coincidentally is recognized on the same day. Grape farmers didn't really focus on organic farming until 10-15 years later. 

Bob Blue and Jeff Cichocki

Bob Blue and Jeff Cichocki

"People would often say, 'Isn't all winemaking organic?,' pointing to a lack of awareness of what's implied by farming organically – no added pesticides," said Bonterra Founding Winemaker Bob Blue in an email. 

When Bonterra introduced organic farming in their Mendocino County vineyards 30 years ago, it was but a handful of growers to do so. Blue said they already were organically farming vegetables with success. 

Blue said at first the only organic tools to fight disease were natural soaps and oils.  While other growers were dousing vines with chemicals, the Bonterra crew was pouring physical labor into accomplishing the same thing but in a less invasive and more environmentally conscious way. 

"To tend to your weeds under your vines, you had to use a shovel," Blue said.  

Today, grape growers have many more tools in their boxes. Instead of shovels to unearth weeds, cover crops prevent them. Instead of adding synthetic fertilizer, chickens and sheep roam the vineyards to provide manure naturally. Ladybugs are even dispatched to kills insects. In short, organic growers prevented problems instead of reacting to them.  

To use "organic" on a wine label producers have to meet strict USDA criteria established in 1990 by the Organic Foods Production Act. "Organically grown grapes" mean no synthetic additives have been added to the soil. For a winery to be called entirely organic, no chemicals, such as sulfites, have been added in the winery. 

“Biodynamic” is a broader term that adds more layers of farm management, such as water control, natural pest control, composting, and nutrient recycling. 

Frey Vineyards, also in Mendocino County, was the first organic and biodynamic winery. It's web site says it has been making gluten-free wines with no added sulfites since 1980.  

“Sustainable” adds an additional, socially responsible level that includes green roofs, solar panels, water conservation and other cost-saving, ecological practices. 

Yes, it is unnecessarily confusing. But those of you who want to be gluten-free or who suffer through headaches and allergies after tasting wine should unravel the jargon. Organic wines could be your ticket to relief. 

Not every winemaker is on board. While organic farming is unquestionably better for the environment and costs no more, a USDA -certified organic wine presents risk. Depending on natural yeast, for instance, could mean a wine never completely ferments. More risky is avoiding sulfites that stabilize a wine and prevents it from spoiling.  

Bonterra winemaker Jeff Cichocki, "We rely on the natural components of the wine for protection from spoilage." He said lower pH levels increase the effectiveness of the natural sulfites found in grapes, so Bonterra aims for grapes with higher acids and lower pH. The result, he said, is "more lively white wines and fresher and more balanced red wines."  

Our tasting of Bonterra's wines prove this out. The wines have great texture, purity and freshness. You won't have to sacrifice your expectations here. 

Cichocki says their biodynamic approach doesn't allow them to correct a problem with a synthetic powder or chemical.  

"We simply don't have the tools to do so as you would in conventional agriculture, and that's made us more disciplined and holistic in our approach to the fruit," he said. 

Hooray for the pioneers. 

Here are a few organically farmed wines and some with Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing approval: 

  • Bonterra Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($14). New Zealand -like in style, this zesty and crisp sauvignon blanc has grapefruit and notes of freshly mown grass.  

  • Bonterra Viognier 2015 ($14). We love the aromatics of viognier, a Rhone grape variety, but Bonterra is able to add a delightful, textured flavor profile to this often one-dimensional grape variety. Generous peach and apricot flavors with a soft mouthfeel and hints of spice. 

  • Frey Biodynamic Chardonnay 2015 ($20). Pear notes with a touch of sweet vanillin oak give this a soft but spirited personality. 

  • Sea Smoke "Ten" Pinot Noir 2014 ($82). This estate Santa Rita Hills vineyard is certified organic and biodynamic. The Ten is one of the most delicious pinot noirs we have tasted, so responsible farming certainly hasn't interfered with quality here. Using 10 clones of pinot noir, the wine is multi-dimensional with a luxurious texture, rich and concentrated currant and blueberry flavors with a good dose of spice. 

  • Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay 2015 ($22).  We have always been fans on this Monterey County producer's chardonnays and an even bigger fan of it being a long-time supporter of sustainable farming. It has the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing designation.  This reasonably priced chardonnay has tropical fruit aromas and pear, apple flavors with a creamy mouthfeel and long finish. 


Walking the El Camino de Santiago

(April 13, 2017)


Every year hundreds of thousands of people make a pilgrimage from the Pyrenees on France’s border to Santiago de Compostela on Spain’s northwest coast. The passage is historically known as the El Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James, and honors the pilgrims who were delivering the remains of St James for burial. (His route was actually by water). 

Theoretically, to finish the trek is penance for one’s sins, but many people make it for the heck of it.  Fortunately for the weary, most routes conveniently pass through Spain’s wine country where one's thirst can be sinfully slaked.  There’s nothing like slugging down some wine on the way to confession.  

We like to walk, but pounding the asphalt for absolution and wine isn’t on our bucket lists. We're good for looking at a map, however, and pretending.  

Much of the northern route passes through Basque Country, La Rioja, Navarra and Galicia. The latter is home to Rias Baixas, which produces some refreshing albarinos after those long walks. Albarino is a great match to seafood and shellfish and is one of our favorite apertifs for spring.  

Here are wines to pour while poring over the map: 

  • Camino Txacoli 2015 ($16). From Basque Country, this wine made from hondurrabi zuri grapes has a nice fizz typical of the region. It puts a spin on classic grapefruit and melon notes. Good way to start your fantasy trek. 

  • Bodegas de la Marques Valserrano Reserva Rioja 2011 ($20). If you are looking for a reasonably priced rioja to age for 5-10 years, this is a good deal. Sturdy tannins give it great body, but sweet blackberry and cherry fruit give it big, forward flavors with a good dose of oak.   

  • Bodegas Franco Espanolas Rioja Bordon Grand Reserva 2005 ($15). The blend in this price-worthy rioja is tempranillo (80 percent), garnacha, mazuelo and graciano. Wow, huge and ripe dark berry flavors with a dash of spice, oak and vanilla.  

  • Castilla y Leon Granza Tempranillo 2015 ($15). From the Ribera del Duero region, this tempranillo has ripe dark berry flavors with a cranberry and earthy aroma, soft texture and lingering complexity.  

  • Pazo das Bruxas Albarino 2015 $16). This reasonably priced white wine from Rias Baixas has refreshing acidity, simplicity and elegance and with peach, lime aromas. This is a nice aperitif in warmer weather.  

  • Vinas del Vero La Miranda de Secastilla Garnarcha Blanca 2013 ($15).    From Somotano in the Navarra region, this is very different.  Made from garnacha blanca grapes is incredibly aromatic with peach and tropical fruit notes. Different is good! 

  • Condes de Albarei Albarino 2015 ($15). White peach and apple flavors dominate this aromatic and round albarino. 

  • Terras Gauda Badía de San Campio Albarino 2015 ($20). We like the tangerine and orange flavors of this delicious, refreshing and soft albarino. 

Hungarian wines much improved

(April 6, 2017)


Hungary – a former member of the USSR along with Georgia, Moldova and several other countries -- are producing amazing wines from indigenous grapes at bargain prices. Since the early 1990s Hungary has been governed by a democratic government and features a free market economy. The Hungarian wine industry that has emerged is returning to its quality winemaking roots and the wines they are producing deserve notice. 

Until recently a trickling of Hungarian wines available in the United States were limited to golden Tokaji Aszu, late harvest dessert wines and a red wine called Bulls Blood made from the kekfrankos grape, also known as blaufrankisch in other parts of the wine-growing world. 

Today the white furmint grape, thought to be indigenous to Hungary, is creating excitement among wine drinkers. Although furmint is the primary grape in the sweet Tokaji Aszu wine, recent interest comes from the dry version of this varietal. 

Furmint is a late-ripening varietal that is grown in Hungary's ancient volcanic soils. It produces wine with bold acidity, ample fruit flavors and wines with a distinct streak of minerality. Furmint is also a versatile varietal that can complement many dishes. 

We tasted several Hungarian furmints with Noel Brockett, a wine representative for Wines from Georgia and Hungary. Noel said that except for the communist-period interruption, Hungary has produced serious fine wine for almost three centuries. In 1727 it was the first in the region to create a DOC to establish official rules for the production and labeling. 

Following are our recommended wines: 

Grof Degenfeld Furmint Tokaj 2013 ($18). Although this wine has a bit of residual sugar, the bracing acidity provides a delightful balance with peach and mineral notes, and a smooth creamy finish. Made from organically grown grapes. Highly recommended 

Beres Furmint Tokaj Szaraz Dry 2014 ($16). The ample acidity in this furmint is matched with refreshing peach and pear flavors. Noel suggested that this wine could easily pair with some meat dishes such as pork or chicken. It would also be a great match for oysters. 

Kvaszinger Estate Furmint Tokaj 2103 ($23). This was our favorite of the dry furmints. Distinctive mineral nose with citrus and pear flavors and a whiff of smoke. The wine features a long creamy finish. Awesome! 

Hold and Hollo Holdvolgy Vineyard 2012 ($20). A very interesting bottle with a lime green rubber label. The blend is 65 percent furmint and 35 percent harslevela with a touch of muscat. A lovely floral note in the nose leads to citrus and some spice flavors with a touch of caramel sweetness in the mouth. 

Beres Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos 2007 ($63). This sweet botrytised dessert wine is what originally put Hungary on the wine map centuries ago, especially among European nobility. A very sweet wine similar in weight and sweetness to French sauternes, this wine is a delight to experience. Although sweet, it is balanced with enough acidity to prevent a heavy presence on the palate. Ripe fresh and dried apricot flavors and honey dominate the flavor experience. Puttonyos refers to the level of sweetness in the wine on a scale of of 3 to 6. A very refreshing and satisfying dessert wine. 

Give merlot the break it deserves

(March 22, 2017)


Merlot has been so unfairly maligned over the years. Sure, it once was vegetal and overly ripe, but much of today's merlot is equal in quality to any other red grape variety. While some people hold on to outdated assessments for one of Bordeaux's noble grape varieties, others are willing to give merlot another chance.  

And you should too. You can look to Petrus -- the Bordeaux wine that is a model for merlot producers -- to see what can be accomplished without the help of cabernet sauvignon. Merlot can be complex, long living and full of rich, layered fruit. It is even more versatile than many heady cabernets -- a match to wild game and lamb but pasta and hamburgers too. 

The relatively recent path to redemption has been led by several California producers, including Pride, Duckhorn, Shafer and others. Unfortunately, if you want quality merlot, you have to open the wallet wider.  

Good merlot starts in the vineyard where yields are reasonably low and the canopy is well managed. Bad sourcing and poor vineyard management can lead to vegetal and unbalanced merlots. Unlike cabernet sauvignon, merlot is more sensitive to uneven ripening and mildew, so location and climate are critical.  Some of the best merlots are coming from vineyard with high elevations and cooling fogs. 

Here are a few top-drawer merlots we recently enjoyed: 

  • Ehlers Estate Merlot 2013 ($55). Winemaker Kevin Morrisey learned his skill in Pomerol, so he knows a thing or two about the grape. This wine from Napa Valley, blended with a small amount of cabernet franc, brings out the lusciousness one expects from merlot. Raspberry and currant flavors with hints of licorice and chocolate. Chewy tannins demand a hearty meal, like stew or game. 

  • Swanson Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot 2013 ($32).  We recently reunited with this classic merlot after a long, unintended hiatus. We’re glad we did. It’s a voluptuous, concentrated wine that exceeds its price in quality. Blended with some cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, this full-bodied wine has oodles of plum aromas and plum, blackberry flavors with a dash of cedar and herbs. When a producer makes merlot its centerpiece, this is the quality you get.  

  • Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Merlot 2013 ($75). Napa Valley is a top source for quality merlot grapes and it doesn't get any better than Mt. Veeder. At these high elevations, the vines struggle to produce fruit, but what they produce is intense and concentrated.  The Mt. Brave, blended with a dash of malbec, is complex with plum and black berry flavors and a bit of mineral. 

  • La Jota Howell Mountain Merlot 2013 ($85). This wine and the previous Mt. Brave are hand-crafted by Chris Carpenter. This one from Howell Mountain has a distinct cocoa powder that we just loved. Bright cherry and plum fruit character make it ridiculously delicious.  

  • Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot Sonoma County 2013 ($28). This is a very well put together merlot with an intense ripe cherry and plum nose. In the mouth very soft tannins and mouth filling plum, cherry and spicy cinnamon flavors dominate. Delicious by itself or with red meat dishes.  

  • Miner Stagecoach Merlot 2013 ($40). With 11 percent cabernet franc in the blend, this Napa Valley merlot has good grip and ripe, rich black fruit with noticeable spice and oak. 

  • Markham Vineyards  Merlot 2014 ($26). Markham is celebrating its 35th vintage of this wine. We liked the texture and complex cherry, chocolate flavors. Known for its merlot, Markham is in full-stride with this anniversary edition.


Chateau Lassegue stands up to the competition

(March 6, 2017)


We always love a challenge, particularly when there is an opportunity to root for an underdog. Thus, it was with great anticipation that we recently joined a handful of other wine professionals to blind taste an underdog Saint-Emilion wine alongside neighboring chateaux that ranked among the region's best. 

The mystery wine was Chateau Lassègue, a 2003 partnership of the French-born Pierre and Monique Seillan and American wine icons, the late Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke.   

Pierre Seillan of Chateau Lassegue

Pierre Seillan of Chateau Lassegue

Also present at the tasting were the Seillans, who were eager to tout the region but particularly eager to have professional tasters see first-hand how well Chateau Lassègue can stand up to heralded wines that cost significantly more. It did well. 

The other wines in the tasting, all from the 2009 vintage, included: Chateau Ausone, Chateau Pavie, Chateau Canon la Gaffelière and Château La Mondotte.  Ausone and Pavie are rated premier grand cru classes(a) – the highest wine classification in St. Emilion. The other two are classified premier grand cru classe(b). Chateau Lassègue is simply grand cru. Seillan, aware of the complications that come with a premier grand cru classification,  seems unmotivated to seek a higher ranking. 

The classification system in Saint-Emilion is complex and muddled. Unlike Graves and Medoc regions of Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion changes its classifications every decade or so. The 2006 classification was wrought with lawsuits and changed yet again in 2012. A wine's classification is immensely critical to its price. Chateau Ausone fetches around $2,000 a bottle; Chateau Pavie is about $400. At $85 a bottle, Chateau Lassègueis relatively a bargain. 

Although Chateau Lassègue was not our favorite of the tasting, it held its ground with aplomb and grace. As Seillan rhetorically asked, is the difference between his wine and a premier grand cru really worth $1,900?  

We were not surprised that Chateau Lassègue tasted like a grand cru classe wine. Several months ago we sampled Chateau Lassègue wines with Monique and were impressed with their balance and elegance. But the chateau's story became even more impressive after hearing Pierre’s passion for Chateau Lassègue’s unique soils and his “micro-cru” philosophy. 

“I am a vigneron,” he proudly says. “I’ve been working in dirt since I was 16.”   

His work in eight French appellations for several chateaux exposed him to the differences between soils. This knowledge allows him to create wines that captures the unique qualities of each vineyard block. 

Seillan credits his wine's quality to the 10 different soil types found at the estate. There is limestone at the plateau, clay on the slopes and gravel at the bottom. Pierre is meticulous about hand-picking each of the blocks separately and fermenting them in separate stainless-steel tanks. Only then can he taste the unique properties of each block and go about the business of blending.  

The southwest-facing estate gets more hours of sunlight than any other property in Saint-Emilion. While others are waiting well into late summer for their grapes to reach phenolic ripeness, Seillan is harvesting his vineyards before cold and wet weather sets in. Many of the vines from this 17th century estate are more than 60 years old. 

“I believe we have the most exceptional vineyard in Saint-Emilion,” Seillan says. 

Seillan's family roots go deep too. Both of his grandfathers were vignerons. His great-great grandfather was a vineyard consultant and his father owned a cork company. He has wine in his blood. 

It was a coincidental meeting with the Jacksons in the mid-1990s that led to the creation of an enduring American-French partnership. Together, the families created the highly regarded Vérité brand in 1998. This incredibly complex California wine has been given more awards and 100-point scores than any other.   

For those looking to stock a cellar with a Bordeaux from an elite neighborhood, Chateau Lassègue is worth the price. 

Gaia Gaja continuing her father's legacy

(March 1, 2017)


More than 25 years ago we shared dinner and conversation with Angelo Gaja, a resolute wine producer who was revolutionizing the Piedmont wine region by planting non-indigenous grape varieties and blending other Italian grapes with the local nebbiolo. At risk to a family business that was four generations deep, Gaja defied regulations established in 1964 that were intended to bring higher standards to the Piedmont but put stifling limits on winemakers.

Gaja respected tradition, but felt the tight restrictions prevented him from making the best wines possible. To the shock of the Piedmont wine community, he declassified his wines in 1996 and adopted the lower DOC class Langhe Rosso.

Gaia Gaja  

Gaia Gaja


He was pilloried by fellow winemakers – but, in the end, the uncompromising Gaja was right. In the right hands and with the right motive, blended wines and classic French varietals brought attention to the Piedmont.

To his father's disappointment, he also introduced French barriques to soften nebbiolo's brutally harsh tannins. Such defiance was revolutionary, but Gaja was undeterred.

His risk paid off. Gaja’s newly blended wines quickly scored well among critics and it wasn’t long before other Piedmont winemakers were abandoning DOCG rules. Today, Gaja’s extraordinary and expensive wines rank alongside the likes of Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux and Krug in Champagne. He's still referred to as "the king of Barbaresco" and the man who dragged Piedmont into the modern world.

Gaja’s visit with us during these changing times set the stage for a recent visit with his daughter, Gaia, who with her sister inherited the mantle and the winery’s new vision. Frankly, we couldn’t imagine the steeled innovator we met decades ago being open to change – even from his children. Then, we met Gaia.

Gaia – pronounced "gaya" just like her last name -- travels the world to spread the Gaja word, cultivate new markets and work with distributors. While each of the children have their jobs, making key decisions about the wines and the vision is a family affair.

With beguiling charm that would melt her most daunting adversary, Gaia talked about the challenge of convincing her father to introduce sustainable viticulture, a current priority. Her father, now 77, was adamantly opposed to the changes she first proposed despite well-reasoned scientific evidence.

“I was frustrated and upset,” she says. “But he was right.  He wanted us to be different but do it our way.”

"Our way” was to bring aboard consultants who specialized in epidemiology, botany and biodynamics.  The family pulled together their analyses and came up with a plan to keep humidity in the soil, prune more efficiently, preserve ground cover and reduce the use of chemicals. During this evolutionary time, the wines were surely changing, but not with any perceptible level to consumers. Alcohol levels were reduced, acidity preserved and the wines had more freshness and drinkability as the vineyards adapted to a warming climate.

“Climate change was a wake-up call for us,” Gaia says.

An even more dramatic change from the new generation was reclassifying the coveted Sori Tilden, Sori Lorenzo and Costa Russi blends as DOCG.

The Gaja wines we tasted recently had the same pedigree as those we tasted with Angelo many years ago. They are high in quality, well-balanced and long-living, but still the cerebral wines that requires one to unravel them like a brain teaser. Its personality is fleeting, Gaia says.

“When I drink nebbiolo, I see myself in a room next to an interesting stranger and he’s running away. I’m constantly chasing this wine and about the time I catch up, it goes again,” Gaia says.

Palates trained on candied, fruit-forward wines won’t like them any more than their lofty prices. Gaia says she is sometimes disappointed when Gaja fans want her to taste expensive wines they feel are similar to Gaja. They're not. They missed the uniqueness of Gaja barbaresco. Like a Maserati, they need to be first understood before they are taken for a test drive.

We also enjoyed the complex and minerally 2013 Ca'Marcanda, a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc planted in Bolgheri. Gaja purchased this property in 1996 and it's been a flagship wine since 2000. Gaia says the blend can change from year to year, although future vintage will have less merlot and more cabernet franc.

“There is no region with such high quality wines,” she believes. “But we had to go through 30 years of confrontation as traditionalists and modernists collided. Confrontation is good.”

As for those French varietals her father planted years ago, she sees a great future for age-worthy chardonnay. The estate's first white wine vineyard was planted in 1979. It bears the name of Gaia and her great grandmother,  Clotilde Rey. The Gaia & Rey chardonnay sells for more than $200 a bottle. 

“There are so few places in Italy where you can make age-able white wine,” she says.

Donelan focused on Rhone varietals

(February 13, 2017)


Cushing Donelan is a man of many talents. An arts graduate of Amherst College, he backpacked around Europe before launching a film production career that started with actor Matthew McConaughey. But no matter how much fun this sounds, his commitment is to wine. And not just any wine – his dad’s wine.

“Cush” is part of a family operation in Santa Rosa that makes some of the best Rhone-varietal wines in Sonoma County. Donelan Family Wines earned critical awards as soon as the brand was launched in 2009 – the Richard’s Vineyard Syrah got a 100 points from the Wine Advocate.

Cushing Donelan

Cushing Donelan

Cush is one of two sons of Joe Donelan, whose love of Rhone varietals stemmed from entertaining sales clients of his former employer, International Paper, and his trips to France. When Joe retired, he was determined to make great wine on the best sites no matter what the cost or sacrifice. Today his portfolio of 14 wines continues to rack up awards and some are about as hard to get as a New York taxi. In fact, most of the wine is sold exclusively through its website mailing list; the rest is sold to fine restaurants.

Cush brought his marketing talents to the family business and often spreads its gospel to discriminating customers at organized restaurant tastings. Tom caught up with him recently at a dinner for an exclusive group of 10. The intimate family-style dinners and the critics’ awards are all Donelan Family Wines needs to promote its annual 6,500-case production.

A Woody Harleson lookalike, Cush is quick with one-liners -- his title on is business card is "menace to sobriety" -- and he can entertain a crowd as well as market.  When he's not marketing wine, he's working on "The West Texas Investors Club," a television docu-series airing on CNBC.

His father’s early wines were full-throttle syrahs. Big, fruit-driven and high in alcohol, they fell into place with other highly regarded California syrahs and pinot noirs. Today, though, Donelan's syrahs aren’t the over-extracted fruit bombs of yore, but instead more restrained, more refined – like a fine-tuned Cote Rotie.

Nearly all of the grapes for these wines are purchased from farmers who have long-term contracts with the Donelans. Cush said they have looked for new locations for vineyards with the soil and microclimates they like. They generally pay twice the going rate for Sonoma County fruit.

The wines are given minimal oak exposure to provide fresh acidity and fresh fruit character. Alcohol levels are hover around 14 percent to keep the wines in balance.

The names on the labels are an introduction to the family. Here are the ones easier to find:

·       Donelan Venus Roussanne/Vigonier 2012 ($52). The scant 2 percent of viognier in this blend gives a nice boost to the roussanne. Neutral oak exposure gives color to the wine but protects the white peach and mineral flavors.

·       Donelan “Nancie” Chardonnay 2013 ($52). Named after Cush’s grandmother, this chardonnay is more Chablis-like with crisp acidity and pear notes. Twenty percent is exposed to new oak.

·       Donelan “Two Brothers” Pinot Noir 2012 ($60). Very well balanced with black cherry, raspberry, milk chocolate and spice notes. Earthy, forest floor feel with a lingering finish. Refined and subtle, it is simply delicious.

·       Donelan “Cuvee Moriah” 2012 ($55). The syrah and mourvedre in this mostly grenache wine play supporting roles, but they are important to the plush texture and aromas. Loads of raspberry and strawberry flavors with intense floral aromas.

·       Donelan “Cuvee Christine” Syrah ($50). Heavier and darker in color than the Cuvee Moriah, Donelan’s flagship wine is a great match to meat dishes. Made entirely of syrah grapes, it “represents everything we love about Sonoma County,” Cush said. Four vineyards, including Donelan’s prized Obsidian vineyard, supplies the grapes for this wonderful quaff. It has a classic Rhone Valley barnyard or garrigue character with plum and blackberry notes with a dash of licorice and black olives.

Sicily known for more than its mafia dons

(January 24, 2017)


Bring up the subject of Sicily and most people will think first of the Cosa Nostra. Wine? Oh, yeah, aren’t they the ones who make marsala?

And so it goes for the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, a winegrowing region that struggles to achieve respect from someone besides the mafia dons. Proud of its history and a certain autonomy from Italy, Sicily didn’t achieve world attention for its wine until marsala was introduced in the 18th century. Multiple cultures and then World War II put winemaking on a rocky course. But, how things have changed in just the last several years. Marsala is much less popular and now Sicilian winemakers are focused on making quality wines from indigenous grape varieties.

“Up until five years ago, Sicily was bottling only 24 percent of its wine,” said Christine Hammond, the brand manager for the U.S. division of Tasca d’Almerita, during a recent visit with us.  The rest of the wine was sold off in bulk to other wine producing regions. Today, the majority of Sicily’s wine is bottled.

The Tasca d’Almerita family owns five estates, including the vast Regaleali estate . Its annual production of 3 million bottles makes it one of the largest wine producers on the island. 

Operated by Count Lucio Tasca d’Almerita and his sons, Giuseppe and Alberto, Regaleali is among those estates leading the way to quality.

Now that growers are bottling more of their wines, new generations of winemakers are concentrating on choosing the right sites for the right grape varieties -- a critical step to becoming recognized outside their country. Yields have dropped as a result of improved vineyard practices. More money is being invested in marketing and the local DOC has established standards focused on quality.

We have been unimpressed by Sicily’s wines over the years, but the recent tasting of Regaleali’s wines gave us reason to reconsider. Although Tasca d’Almerita and most other producers have planted French grape varieties to be competitive, it’s the indigenous grapes – grillo, nero d’Avola, perricone, inzolia and cataratto -- that hold the most promise. Consumers aren’t looking for another chardonnay or merlot, but they do what something they can’t get anywhere else.

We were impressed with the Regaleali Grillo Cavallo delle Fate ($20) because it had much more dimension that we’ve tasted in the past from this grape variety. A grape variety used in marsala, grillo is grown in western Sicily an on the island of Mozia. Regaleali Estate also has a marvelous Mozia grillo that shows off a nutty, lemon and apple character.  We highly recommend you try grillo as an alternative to sauvignon blanc.

The Regaleali Nero d’Avola ($20) is a stunning wine with rich texture, dense fruit and promising longevity. Finally, the 2010 Rosso del Conte ($70) is complex, albeit expensive, with layered black fruit, long finish and excellent balance. Honestly, we were blown away at the quality we found in these Sicilian wines. The first two wines are excellent values.

These wines are worthy of their prices and will offer you something unique.

Am I okay to drive?

(January 17, 2017)


See if this sounds familiar: you and your spouse go out for a nice dinner after a hectic week and order a bottle of wine. You relax, wax a little romance and enjoy a gourmet meal out on the town. You pay your hefty bill with a contented smile, head for the door and your wife asks, “Are you OK to drive?”

“You bet,” you respond confidently as others have before you. Surely there is little alcohol left in your system after drinking several glasses of wine with food over a couple of hours. Besides, you feel totally alert.

You safely drive home without incident. But you wonder: would I have passed a breathalyzer test if pulled over by the police?

Chances are that this thought has crossed your mind more than once – it should. But there may be some relief for those of you who live in perpetual fear about feeling sober after consuming a moderate amount of alcohol but being drunk in the eyes of the law.  If you are responsible and if you honor your limitations, most of you can drink in moderation without fear of jail. Read on.

Tom and his wife regularly order a bottle of wine with dinner. On a recent night Tom decided to check his alcohol content using a portable breathalyzer. Manufactured by AK GlobalTech, the AlcoMate Revo ($250) uses a pre-calibrated replaceable intelligent sensor module that makes it as accurate on the first day as the 500th day. While other systems have a mail-back calibration that is required to maintain accuracy, this system has a spare sensor module so that users don’t have to wait for the first one to be recalibrated by a lab. It's state of the art and used professionally in the field, but the results are not necessarily admissible in court -- even most police-administered breathalyzer results are used only to determine probable cause and they measure alcohol in breath, not blood.

The AlcoMate is not reliable until 20 minutes after you have finished drinking and eating. Although most diners leave the table as soon as their glasses are empty, it may take as long as 20 minutes before you are administered an official blood-alcohol test anyway. Nonetheless, used correctly, the device will give you a reliable indication of how your body metabolizes alcohol when consumed with or without food. It's a reality checkwe wish more people could perform.

While at home, Tom consumed 15 ounces -- a little more than half of the bottle of wine -- over a 90-minute period and with substantial food. He is 6-ft., 4-in. tall and weighs 200 pounds. About 30 minutes later – 10 more minutes than the mandatory wait period – his alcohol level measured .045 percent on the AlcoMate. That's comfortably below the .08 percent level every state has adopted for driving under the influence.

Many states, however, have an additional driving while impaired charge that allows for a lower blood alcohol content. In Maryland, for instance, the BAC level for DWI is .071 to .079 percent – still above Tom's AlcoMate result. Furthermore, it should be noted that drivers under the age of 21 can be charged if they have any alcohol in their blood.

As if this isn't enough to worry about, Maryland law says that even a lower BAC result -- between .051 and .079 percent -- can be used against you in court if there is another charge, such as reckless driving, to show impairment. There is good reason to think twice before getting behind the wheel.

At levels below .05 percent, the law creates an assumption the driver is not under the influence. In short, Tom was in the clear.

Everyone absorbs alcohol differently because of their weight, body fat and ability to metabolize alcohol. Even if your weight to similar to Tom’s, your result may not be the same. Plus, all drinks are not equal – a double shot of tequila in that margarita will have a greater impact than a 4-oz. glass of wine.

There are additional laws that vary from state to state in regards to drivers who are under 21 and who are driving a commercial vehicle. You should check your state's laws on line.

A few WebMD guidelines about alcohol consumption:

n  Generally, a person can metabolize about one 4-oz. glass of wine in an hour.  There are plenty of charts on line that provide guides on alcohol consumption over time.

n  About a fifth of alcohol is absorbed by the stomach; the rest is absorbed by the small intestine. If alcohol is consumed with food, absorption is completed between 1-3 hours. Food does make a difference.

n  Alcohol is absorbed faster in water than fat, so an obese person is more likely to show the effects of alcohol than a thin person of the same weight but smaller height. Since women generally have more fat than men, they absorb alcohol slower.

You may be fine if you and your wife split a bottle of wine over a two-hour dinner and follow the speed limit home, but those raucous parties across town can get you into trouble. Declaring a designated driver before you start drinking is always a wise idea and if that fails, get a ride home.



(January 10, 2017)

Inexpensive wines to start the new year


There's something about early January that leaves us resigned to another long haul. With 2016 behind us and the celebrations long over, it's time to get back to the business of earning a buck in a year of unknown consequences. It is enough to drive you to drink – drink wine, of course, and in moderation to save lives and waistlines.  

With fewer bucks to spare as the bills come in, we figured this a good time to offer some value wines that won't set you back. Today's "value" in wine is $15 and under. 

The good news is that the consumer has more wine than everfrom which to choose. Three of our favorite reds year-to-year are M. Chapoutier Cotes du Rhone Belleruche ($12), evodia ($10) and Breca Garnacha ($14). The syrah and grenache grapes used in these wines have lots of forward fruit character to make them ridiculously delicious.  They are perfect wines for those winter stews, chilis and hearty pastas. 

A favorite white wine year-to-year is picpoul.  There are many producers of this Rhone Valley grape varietal and generally you can't go wrong with any of them. The wine – usually priced around $12-15 -- has good acidity and racy citrus and apricot flavors. Our go-to version has been Terre di Neptune Picpoul. 

Here are some other wines  $15 and under: 

  • Chronic Cellars Purple Paradise 2015 ($15). Once you get past the shock of the bizarre label, you will find a delicious blend of syrah, petite sirah and zinfandel. It embodies the goal of Josh and Jake Beckett to create wines that target a casual lifestyle. Fun, adventuresome, uncomplicated. Great value and an excellent wine to serve with barbecued foods, pasta and burgers. If the wine doesn't start a conversation, the label will. 

  • 19 Crimes The Banished Dark Red 2016 ($12). Besides having a good story about British criminals being sentenced to Australia for committing one of 19 crimes, this Australian wine is a delicious felony. Jam packed with sweet, rich shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and grenache fruit.  

  • Sena Verde Albarino 2015 ($12). Don't forget this delicious white grape variety from the Rias Baixas region of northern Spain. It has broad, exotic aromas of wild flowers and apricots and delicious tropical fruit flavors. This albarino is more lush than most.  

  • Acrobat Pinot Gris 2015 ($13).  Made by King Estate, this Oregon pinot gris is picking up a lot of well-deserved reviews. Lime, mango, pear flavors greet the palate. It has bright and balanced acidity and long finish. 

  • Rimbert St.-Chinian “Mas au Schiste” 2013 ($15). Forward and simple character with blackberry and currants flavors. A great match for mushrooms, a common substitute for meat if vegetarians are at the table. 

  • Apothic Red 2014 ($14). Gallo has built an incredible brand with these forward, slightly sweet blends. The red is made from zinfandel, merlot, syrah and cabernet – lots of rich dark fruit with hints of chocolate and vanilla. The Apothic White is a smooth blend of chardonnay, riesling and pinot grigio. We also enjoyed the Apothic Inferno ($17) for its deeper character and firmer structure. 

  • Siglo Crianza Rioja 2012 ($15).  Rioja is the epicenter of inexpensive wines. This tempranillo blend is loaded with ripe, blackberry fruit and has hints of chocolate, vanilla and earth. It's blended with mazuelo and graciano grapes.  

  • El Coto Cotes de Imaz Reserva 2010 ($10). From Rioja, this tempranillo has loads of ripe dark fruit. Simple yet deliciousl 

  • Bodegas Tintoralba Capitulo 8 2014 ($13). Garnacha is the grape that makes this wine from the Aragon region of Spain such a treat.  

  • JUSTIN Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($13). Lemon and pineapple aromas give way to generous apple and white peach flavors. Crisp and bright, it is a terrific aperitif. 

  • Domaine du Tariquet Classic 2015 ($10). We just loved this vibrant and smooth white blend of ugni blanc and colombard , sauvignon and gros manseng from the Cotes du Gascogne. Because these grapes are low in sugar, the alcohol content is less too – about 10.5 percent vs. 13-14 percent for most wines. Citrus and peach notes with good acidity but round finish.  

  • Leese-Fitch Firehouse Red Wine 2014 ($12). This wine is worth mentioning again because of its value. Fruit-forward profile, rich texture and healthy tannins. It is a motley blend of petite sirah (33 percent), syrah, merlot, zinfandel, barberamourvedre and tempranillo. It’s fruity enough to serve as an aperitif, but would easily do well with grilled chicken or sausage, tomato-based pasta and hamburgers.  

  • Fiuza Estate Alvarinho Tejo Portugal 2015 ($14). Made from 100 percent alvarinho (otherwise known as albarino in Spain), this is a beautifully satisfying unoaked white wine from the centrally located Portuguese region of Tejo near Lisbon. Ripe tropical fruit in the nose and mouth are balanced with bracing acidity that pairs well with seafood and poultry. 

(January 3, 2017)

Etude finds variety in pinot noir from different regions


Imagine you’re a winemaker and quite happy crafting $50 pinot noirs in some verdant California valley. The wines are selling well, the harvest is good and the boss is happy. But you're never satisfied and one day you dream of the opportunity to wax your skills on pinot noir grown in some foreign planet, like Oregon. You don’t want to leave your satisfying job in California and it’s not likely your boss wants to slake your expensive thirst for adventure. So you pack up your fantasy and go pick some grapes. 

Jon Priest, Etude's versatile winemaker

Jon Priest, Etude's versatile winemaker

Not Jon Priest, winemaker for the phenomenal Etude. He stepped into the big shoes of Tony Soter who left Etude in 2006 to make wines under his own name in Oregon. Priest had established a credible reputation of his own after making wines for Adelaida Vineyards, Wild Horse and Taz before coming to Etude in 2005 to work alongside Soter before he left.  

Etude’s pinot noirs are among the best made in California, thanks in part to sourcing grapes from Carneros, Sonoma Coast and Santa Barbara County. Although it seems it has been only recent that we have gotten to known these wines, Etude has been around since 1982. Its first release coincided with Carneros being named an appellation. 

But Etude and its new owner, Treasury Wine Estates, was limited by growth in a competitive California market and started to think of new regions to source grapes. Priest, like Soter before him, looked out of state, first to Oregon, one of the best regions for pinot noir. Priest also was familiar with Felton Road in the heart of New Zealand's pinot-noir-rich Central Otago. Signing contracts with growers there, Etude was suddenly international, giving consumers a golden opportunity to taste pinot noirs from different regions but from the same winemaker. 

The New Zealand pinot noir is bottled in that country, but Oregon’s grapes are harvested, sorted and destemmed in the northwest and the juice is shipped overnight to Etude’s facility in California. The grapes macerate along the way in refrigerated trucks. 

Is making wine in three different regions a challenge?  

“Well, it helps to keep my mileage points up with United Airlines,” Priest quipped in a recent phone conversation.  

Although winemaking techniques remain somewhat standard from place to place – Priest likes whole-cluster fermentation, for instance – terroir plays a huge role in each wine’s flavor profile. The New Zealand pinot noir, for instance, has a thyme character, said Priest, due to the wild thyme grown in the fields there. He said he can also taste the schist rock in the soil. 

“The soil (in New Zealand) is well-draining and it’s incredibly dry,” he said. "The real trick is understanding irrigation.”