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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.


Give this winter a final dose of zinfandel

(March 12, 2018)


We suspect most of you are fed up with the cold weather. As this winter gets in its last gasps, it's a good time to pass the time with zinfandel, an all-American wine.

There have been countless arguments over where zinfandel was born. But the introduction of DNA analysis reveals it is a relative of Croatian grape varieties crljenak kastelanski and tribidrag. It is also related to Italy's primitivo grape. But zinfandel is more common in the United States, where it was brought here by Italian immigrant winemakers. Today it accounts for 10 percent of California vineyards.

Alas, most of the grapes go into sugary white zinfandel. Vinified dry, however, zinfandel can be a heady, full-bodied wine that is a perfect match to ribs, pizza, burgers, pasta and foods with tomato sauces. So, clean off that grill.

Grown in warmer regions, the zinfandel grapes accumulate a lot of sugar and alcohol levels can be as high as 18 percent. Your body will experience a difference, so watch out.

Here are several zinfandels we recently tasted:

·         Michael David The 7 Deadly Zins Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel 2015 ($16).  Aromatic, medium bodied and with fresh cherry and raspberry fruit with a hint of chocolate.

·         Bear Flag Zinfandel 2015 ($25). Blended with petite sirah, teroldego, malbec and other grape varieties, the Bear Flag is a sturdy and jammy zinfandel -- a great match to barbecue. Forward and ripe plum and blackberry flavors with a good dose of chocolate. It is one of our favorite zinfandels this year. 

·         Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Zinfandel 2014 ($37). This producer continues to hit homeruns with its zinfandel. Loads of fresh raspberry and vanilla aromas with a smooth finish. Frank's 2014 cabernet sauvignon ($53) is also a stunning wine meant for the long haul. Gorgeous dark fruit flavors with aromas of cassis, cocoa and that eucalyptus hint so common to Rutherford cabs.

·         Artezin Zinfandel 2016 ($18). Blended with some petite sirah and carignan, this full-bodied Mendocino County zinfandel has broad and rich flavors of dark fruit, cassis, clove, cinnamon and pepper with cherry and pomegranate aromas. Very expansive profile.  It's a good example of what petite sirah can bring to a zinfandel.

·         Artezin Mendocino County Old Vine Zinfandel 2016 ($18). This producer makes several excellent zinfandels, but the Mendocino version represents a good value in full-bodied zinfandels. Ripe berry flavors, moderate tannins and nice spice notes.

·         Jessie's Grove Royal Tee Ancient Vine Lodi Zinfandel 2013. ($42).  Generous blackberry aromas are followed by long and ripe blackberry flavors with a hint of licorice and tobacco. Loved it! 

·         Grgich Hills Estate Napa Valley Zinfandel 2013 ($36). The addition of petite sirah gives this zinfandel better structure and color. Expect black cherry and blackberry flavor, lush mouthfeel and a lingering finish.  

·         Cedarville Vineyard Estate Zinfandel El Dorado 2015 ($26). Fresh raspberry aromas are followed by ripe red fruit flavors and a touch of chocolate. 

·         Peachy Canyon Westside Zinfandel Paso Robles 2015 ($26). Peachy Canyon has been making accessible zinfandel in Paso Robles for almost 30 years. Spicy berry fruit nose with distinct raspberry fruit flavors in the mouth with a cloak of balanced oak. Very agreeable and easy to drink.  We also love the Peachy Canyon Clevenger Zinfandel 2014 ($35), an intense yet balanced zinfandel with juicy blueberry and blackberry flavors, and the Peachy Canyon Incredible Zinfandel 2015 ($15), a great value for an everyday wine.

·         Gnarly Head Old Vine Zin 2015 ($15). Using grapes from gnarled 35- to 80-year-old vines, this Lodi producer has crafted a delicious, rich and jammy blackberry flavors with a dash of mocha.

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

Don't lose your sense of adventure

(March 5, 2018)


While soaring over the beautiful Mid-Atlantic seacoast on a recent flight from Providence to Baltimore, Pat was admiring the view while other passengers had closed their shades, oblivious to the spectacle unfolding five miles below them.  Have Americans, numbed by the cacophony of stimuli that bombard them every day, lost their curiosity and sense of adventure?

Then, he wondered, have we also lost our curiosity in wine? Do we fall back on chardonnay and merlot at the expense of discovering godello, gruner veltliner and the like? 

Out of an estimated 1,200 grape varietals in the world, 65 percent of the wine sold in the United States is limited to seven categories -- chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot grigio, moscato, pinot noir and white zinfandel. Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon account for 35 percent of total consumption, according to the Wine Institute.

  The numbers are hardly a matter of availability. As we visit wine shops around the country, we have noticed more grape varietals that are new to the marketplace. From Sicily we have enjoyed the inzolia grape, which traditionally was used in fortified marsala wine production, but also makes an inexpensive, refreshing white table wine. Ruche from the Piedmont region makes a medium-bodied, food-friendly red table wine with berry elements and floral notes.

  For years only a sweet version of Hungary's Tokaji was available. Today a dry version of furmint, one of six grapes used in Tokaji, is capturing consumer attention with its crisp acidity and delicious citrus and pear flavors. 

Winemaking in Greece began more than 6,000 years ago, yet only recently could you find something besides the repulsive retsina -- a resin-flavored table wine that was the butt of jokes for its mouth-puckering, acrid flavors. Today it’s hard to find retsina, but in its place are well-crafted, Greek table wines with tongue-twisting names like moschofilero, assyrtiko and agiorgitiko.  

So, with all of this variety, why do we stick with California chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and the other popular wines? Comfort, most likely. We are afraid of investing $15 in a wine we may not like. Maybe we stubbornly cling to the notion that only one wine works for us.  But succumbing to tired conventions denies us the opportunity to rethink our tired positions or discover another wine we may come to call a favorite.

The other day a friend who said she liked nothing but Oregon pinot noir made a new year’s resolution to try new wines. She confessed she once felt the need to identify with one wine just to narrow the choice when she visited a wine shop.  Maybe that’s you too.

With that, we offer you some exciting wines we recently discovered that deliver a lot of unique and delicious flavors from different grapes or at least different regions.

·         Mastroberardino Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco 2016 ($20). The Mastroberardino family revived the wine industry in Campania, Italy, with its indigenous grapes. We have followed them for decades and admire their dedication to the region and its unusual grapes grown in volcanic soil. The Radici is an extraordinary, ageworthy red wine and this white – meaning "tears of Christ" -- has white peach and licorice flavors with crisp acidity and mineral. It is made from coda di volpe grapes.

·         Paolo Manzone Dolcetto d'Alba Magna 2015 ($18). We loved this opulent and fruit forward wine made entirely of dolcetto grapes grown in the Piedmont. With more complexity than we expect from dolcetto, it sports bright raspberry and cherry notes with great palate length.  

·         Cartuxa Evora Tinto Colheita 2013 ($25). We tried this on a group of friends recently and people were taking photos of the label so they could find it later. It was the star of the night. It is a blend of aragonez, alicante bouschet, trincadeira and cabernet sauvignon. Sturdy tannins and packed with dense red fruit, it is a wine to serve with beef or to age for several years. Complex, floral and herb aromas, plum and blackberry flavors. 

·         Passi di Orma Bolgheri Rosso 2013 ($38). Bolgheri has only recently been getting noticed for its wine and this one from the village of Castagneto Carducci is a gem. Blended with merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, it has broad flavors that reflect the unique terroir of this region.

·         Chateau de Caladroy “Cuvee Les Schistes” 2013 ($16). From an historic village atop a knoll in the Roussillon region of southern France, this exotic blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre from low-yielding vines combines structure and finesse. Deeply concentrated dark fruit, cassis and kirsch flavors with floral aromas. Excellent value.

·         Chateau Ollieux Romanis Cuvee Classique Corbieres 2016 ($17).  If you like your French wine with a little garrigue – minty and herbal notes reminscent of the wild plant life along the Med – you'll enjoy this gem from Corbieres. There is a little pungency on the nose and the flavors explode with ripe raspberries and blackberries with a dash of tobacco.  It is a delicious blend of carignan, grenache and syrah. 

·         Hacienda de Arinzano Red 2012 ($20). Located in northeast Spain between Rioja and Bordeaux in Navarra, Hacienda de Arinzano Vinos de Pago is making some excellent blends. This one – full of lush, ripe black cherry flavors – is a blend of tempranillo, merlot, cabernet sauvignon. It is a great value for the depth of character.  

·         Qupé Marsanne 2015 ($20). The 25 percent roussanne in this blend is just enough to give the marsanne more dimension. Qupé's owner and winemaker Bob Lindquist is one of the original Rhone Rangers and has staked his career on Rhone varietals. His wines represent many of the best made with these grape varieties. This bright and racy marsanne from Santa Barbara County shows off peach and lime flavors with a dash of coconut and mineral on the finish. Very refreshing acidity.

·         Feast Red Semeli Winery Agiorgitiko Peloponnese 2015 ($13). If you want to get a sense of the quality and value of some Greek wine, try this excellent example. Made from agiorgitiko grapes -- sometimes referred to as St. George -- this lighter red wine is somewhat reminiscent of a well-crafted pinot noir.  Cherries mixed with herbs and spicy notes make a splendid wine to pair with chicken and salmon.  

·         Abbazia Di Novacella Stiftskellerei Neustift Schiava DOC 2016 ($19). This unusual Italian grape makes a red wine somewhat similar in style to pinot noir but with a little more oomph. Spicy cherry elements with a distinctive whiff of violets, this delightful wine would pair beautifully with tuna or salmon.                

Finding value is the Cotes du Rhone

(February 21, 2018)


No matter how much you enjoy wine and no matter how deep your disposable income, you appreciate a good deal, right? We’re not talking about those unpopular wines that end up in a basket at the checkout counter. We’re talking about discovering reliable wines from reputable producers who deliver good values year after year.

Knowing the wine regions that deliver good value is critical when you are scanning a restaurant wine list of pricey Bordeaux or cult California cabernet sauvignons. With markups as high as 400 percent, you probably cringe at the thought of ordering a wine that cost half as much in a retail store.

That’s why we like the Cotes du Rhone, the second largest AOC in France that delivers values often eclipsing their reasonable prices of $15 to $20.  Even with restaurant markups, Cotes du Rhone represent good values across the board.

Although 22 grapes varieties are allowed in the region’s red, white and rosé wines, most common are the grenache, syrah, cinsault and mourvedre grapes. These grapes are blended in most of Cotes du Rhone’s red wines and provide the dimension and character we like so much. The terroir in this region provide a “garrigue” quality associated with Provencal herbs – lavender, rosemary and bay leaf -- common to more expensive wines from Northern Rhone. Combined with forward raspberry and strawberry flavors and good acidity, these elements make for a dynamic wine at prices hard to beat anywhere else.

Here are several versions we recently discovered:

·       Esprit du Rhone 2015 ($17). Grenache, carignan, syrah and cinsault combine to deliver a dark and rich blend with fresh raspberry aromas and a touch of licorice. Fine tannins and a sweet finish make for an elegant yet pronounced character.

·       Les Dauphins Organic Cotes du Rhone Villages 2015 ($15). Full bodied with concentrated raspberry and strawberry flavors. Grenache dominates the blend, but includes syrah, mourvedre and carignan.

·       Cachette Cotes du Rhone 2015 ($15). Lighter in style, the profile is aromatic and spicy with medium body and fresh red fruit flavors.

·       St. Cosme Cotes du Rhone 2015 ($15). A favorite year to year, this all-syrah delight has a floral bouquet with a dash of licorice, and bright red currant and raspberry flavors.

·       Ferraton Pere & Fils Samorens Cotes du Rhone 2015 ($14). Simple blend of grenache, syrah and cinsault from biodynamic-farmed vineyards, this wine has extracted red fruit character and medium body.

·       E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Rouge 2013 ($15). Guigal is unique in that it ages its wines two years in bottle before release. This gives the wine a broader, accessible profile. The blend of 50 percent syrah, 45 percent grenache and 5 percent mourvedre is effusive in ripe plum and blackberry fruit with a dash of black olives. This has always been one of our perennial favorites since we started to write this column.

·       E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Rosé 2016 ($15). One of the best and most consistent rosés on the market, this refreshing wine shows off raspberry and orange peel flavors. Balanced acidity and long finish.


There are other regions that grow the same grapes that are common to the Cotes du Rhone. Many of these wines are crisp, zesty white wines. Here are some red and white wines using Rhone grape varieties:

·       Cline Roussanne Marsanne North Coast 2016 ($24). Fred Cline is a pioneer in growing Rhone grape varieties in California and year-after-year we have enjoyed his adventuresome red and white blends. This white version – 64 percent roussanne and 36 percent marsanne – is a lively wine with bracing acidity, bright citrus flavors and hints of honey and mineral. Very intense aromas and simple but refreshing flavors.

·       Bonterra The Butler Mendocino County Red Blend 2013  ($50). This complex and ridiculously delicious blend of syrah, mourvedre, grenache and zinfandel knocks it out of the ballpark. Deep inky color, intense blackberry and mocha aromas, with plum and blackberry flavors, aggressive tannins and long finish. The name comes from the organic Butler Ranch Vineyard that supplies the grapes for this colossal wine.

·       M. Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Blanc Cotes du Roussillon Villages 2016 ($15). This genius from the Rhone Valley has a smashing hit with this wine from the Roussillon region of southern France. Chapoutier bought the property in 1999. It's a scrappy estate close to the Spanish border where the ground seems unsuitable to vineyards. Leave it to Chapoutier to find the spirit to farm this terrain and make a great wine. The white is very unique – a blend of grenache blanc, grenache gris, vermentino and macabeo – with melon, honeysuckle, fresh grapefruit and citrus notes cloaked in crisp acidity.

·       La Grange de Quatre Sous e Jeu du Mail 2014 ($20). This Vin de Pay D'oc from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France is extraordinary. The 55 percent viognier gives it beautiful aromatics and the marsanne from 18 to 20-year-old vines provides the juicy stone fruit and herbal flavors. It has a lush texture that gives it length on the palate. Other wines from this great producer are equally great in value.

·       Priest Ranch Grenache Blanc 2016 ($22). A pleasant alternative to sauvignon blanc, this spritely white grenache offers crisp acidity and mineral notes with generous white peach aromas and stone fruit, melon flavors.

·       Donelan Cuvee Moriah 2014 ($50). This beautiful, well-integrated blend of grenache (84 percent) and mourvedre makes for a killer wine. The partial carbonic maceration and the good dose of mourvedre enhances the tantalizing floral and cassis aromas. Forward flavors are redolent of pomegranate and blueberries. Soft mouthfeel and long in the finish.

·       Qupé Bien Nacido Hillside Estate Roussanne 2013 ($40).  The malolactic fermentation and sur lies aging rounds off the often bracing acidity of roussanne. Aged 18 months in neutral oak, it has a rich texture and layers of fruit. Pineapple, spice, vanilla aromas are followed by lush apple and citrus flavors. Because these late-ripening grapes are vulnerable to rot, the yield of surviving grapes is low – hence the price.

·       Qupé Sawyer Lindquist Grenache 2014 ($35). From the cool Edna Valley, this killer grenache attacks the palate with juicy strawberry flavors and floral, violet aromas. A very pretty wine with a dash of cloves and a long finish. We loved it.

Old vs. new school Napa cab

(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).  

Choosing wines for Valentine's Day

(February 5, 2018)


There are many things that can make a man cringe: root canals, colonoscopies, marriage proposals. Then there is Valentine's Day, the occasion when a man really wants to hide but knows someone dear to him is expecting a romantic gesture. This is not a man’s comfort zone. 

Most men will default to the usual gift: an effortless but very expensive, cringe-worthy dinner out. Your restaurant thanks you. But the adventurous will create something more original – maybe a handmade greeting card, a walk in the park, or maybe – egad – an engagement ring.  

Don't do anything rash. Take it from us, keeping Valentine's Day simple has been just as satisfying to our spouses once you get past the courtship.  Some flowers, a card, or a home-cooked dinner at home works fine. But no matter how simple the celebration, we've always have celebrated Valentine's Day with wine -- champagne to start and a nice red over a hearty meal. 

Champagne is a sensory experience. Its effervescence tingles the palate and leaves a notion that you are bathing in luxury. A rosé champagne takes it up a notch. A French rosé champagne puts you on a pedestal. And, you want to be on that pedestal, right? 

Moet & Chandon has a nice package: a full bottle of its Imperial Rosé ($50) in an attractive box designed just for Valentine’s Day. If price is an issue, you can get the same packaging for a split (180ml) for just $15. That would give you each a glass of special wine. 

There are other French rosé champagnes we like: Nicolas Feuillatte, Veuve-Cliquot, Piper-Heidsieck, for example. Or, if you want a still rosé to get things started, here are two we just love: 

  • Kim Crawford New Zealand Rosé 2017 ($17). From one of the best-selling producers of New Zealand wines in the U.S., this juicy rosé shows off watermelon and strawberry notes. An ideal match to Valentine's Day. 

  • Guigal Cotes du Rhone Rosé 2016 ($15). One of our favorite rosés year after year, the Guigal is a blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah. It's big in style with generous raspberry and citrus flavors, refreshing acidity and long finish. You'll love this wine whether it's warm or cold outside. 

If you are making dinner at home, set the mood with champagne or a glass of rosé while you prepare dinner. If the night's theme is French cuisine, here is a red and white wine to complement any luxurious French meal: 

  • Joseph Drouhin Gevrey Chambertain 2014 ($70). A very high quality village Burgundy from the 2014 vintage, which was severely affected by hail in some areas of the region. This Gevrey is already drinking well with medium ripe cherry notes accented by spicy and intriguing earthy elements.            

  • Domaine Vacheron Sancerre 2013 ($35).  Made by one of Sancerre's most respected producers, this sauvignon blanc is simply stunning. The pure fruit character and mineral notes takes what is usually a simple, light-bodied wine to a new stratosphere with intense, rich and long-lasting flavors. The yields from old vines are low and only natural yeast is used. The farming here is resolutely biodynamic. Worth every penny. 

  Are you putting steak on the grill? Here are a few luxurious cabernet sauvignons from California to consider: 

  • Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Maestro 2014 ($50). The late Robert Mondavi made some of the most exceptional cabernet in Napa Valley. His wine today represents the standards he set for Napa Valley a long time ago. This version is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot. Winemaker Joe Harden has produced a delicious yet serious wine with dark berry, cassis flavors with hints of mocha and cinnamon. Fine tannins. 

  • St. Supery Napa Valley Dollarhide Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($80). This Napa Valley property has been killing it for the last several years with all of its wines. We like this single-vineyard cab for its depth and character. Ripe blackberry and plum flavors with hints of mocha, vanilla and licorice. Viscous and long in the finish, it's destined to improve with age. We also like the 2014 Elu, a Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc.  

  • Beaulieu Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($33). We enjoyed this opulent and richly textured cabernet sauvignon from a venerable producer. Expressive dark berry and plum notes are accented by broad nuances of caramel and cinnamon that come from the 15 months the wine spends in oak. Delicious wine now, but one that can age.    

Are you planning a romantic Italian dinner? Nothing says love better than a hearty bowl of pasta, some Frank Sinatra music, candles and a luxurious bottle of Italian wine. Here are some gems guaranteed to impress: 


  • Tommasi Casisano Brunello di Montalcino 2012 ($60). If you are planning a dinner of Italian pasta or even a steak, there is nothing more luxurious and romantic than brundello di montalcino. This full-bodied version is aged in Slavonian oak casks for 3 years and thus has a round but complex profile. Crank up the music! 

  • Marchesi di Gresy Martinenga Barbaresco 2013 ($50). Classic in style, this nebbiolo star exhibits aromatic plum and black cherry notes, followed by fresh dark fruit flavors, firm tannins and long finish. The producer's 2015 Martinenga Nebbiolo ($22) is also an enjoyable drink – not as complex but certainly delicious with young fruit character. 

  • Paolo Manzone Barolo Serralunga d'Alba 2013 ($60). Approachable in its youth yet destined for years of greatness, this sturdy barolo has a floral nose, firm yet fine tannins, red cherry flavors with a dash of forest floor.  









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.

Wine conventions fading; Dashwood wines

(January 15, 2018)


The other day we had a wine epiphany. We were reading a story about the invention of blue wines and laughed at the notion of wine being anything but red, white or pink. As crazy as this trend sounds to most of us, it isn't crazy to new generations of wine drinkers who know no bounds. Should color really matter? Were we just hung up on tradition? 

The towering walls of winemaking we once thought were sacrosanct are coming down. Younger generations of winemakers are challenging practices established by their parents and grandparents. Frustrated winemakers obligated to use certain grapes are contesting government restrictions and labeling. The focus today is not to make the best wine within a region's carefully prescribed formulas, but to make the best wine period. Maybe we're uncomfortable that the rules are changing, but do they really matter if in the end the wine tastes delicious?  

Here's just a smattering of changes in the last decade or so: 

  • Blends. Italian winemaker Angelo Gaja broke Piemonte restrictions on grape varieties in the late 1990s and created some of the first blends that incorporated French grape varieties with the local barbera and barbaresco grapes. Dave Phinney, the wine genius behind The Prisoner, took blending a quantum leap further. He is blending grapes across an entire country or state -- for instance, Piedmonte barbera is blended with sangiovese to make "I" for Italian. In California, syrah is being blended with cabernet sauvingon. Anything goes today. 

  • Colors. People once scoffed at rosés -- are they dry or sweet? -- but today there are orange and blue wines from which to choose. Abe Schroener, who we've met several times at St. John's College, is one of the most unconventional winemakers you'll ever encounter. He makes polarizing orange wines, loves to add sulphur, and most recently takes great wine and carbonates it to come up with a more interesting sparkling wine. Blue wines -- a blend of red and white grapes laced with anthocyanin and indigo pigments and softened with sweeteners -- is a creation of a few enterprising Spaniards.  

  • Oxidation. Once thought to be a flaw that resulted from a wine's exposure to air is now seen as an asset. It creates nutty, fermenting apple flavors like those found in cider. We've tasted it in California marsannes and rousannes and in some Spanish wines. 

  • Containers. Wine once came in glass sealed with a cork. Today, there are several closures ranging from glass stoppers to screwtops. The container can be a box or a can. And, it's not just for cheap wine any more. 

Get used to change. We haven't seen the end of it yet. 


Stu Marfell is chief winemaker for Dashwood and Goldwater, two New Zealand wines owned by billionaire investor Bill Foley who also is owner of the new expansion NHL franchise in Las Vegas. Marfell, who slightly resembles a young Jim Carrey, visited with us recently to showcase the Dashwood and Goldwater sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs that are available in the U.S. market.  

Marfell crafts wine from the renowned Marlborough region on the northern section of South Island.  He says Marlborough is surrounded by the cool ocean waters and dominated by warm, dry winds that create ideal growing conditions -- hot days and cool nights.   

Goldwater wines are sourced from the Wairau Valley, one of the two main grape growing valleys in the Marlborough region. According to Marfell, the Wairau Valley has more fertile, alluvial soils and hence produces riper fruit. We found the Goldwater Sauvignon Blanc Wairau Valley 2016 ($19) to present pleasant citrus flavors tempered by tropical fruit notes and refreshing acidity.  

Marlborough pinot noir is gaining notice and deserved popularity due to its easy drinkability and consumer-friendly prices. The Goldwater Pinot Noir Wairau Valley 2011 ($24) was Californian in style but was clearly in a good place. Ripe cherry in a medium-bodied, likeable package makes this wine a clear winner. 

Dashwood, on the other hand, is the result of blending fruit from the Wairau and Awatere Valleys. Marfell said the Awatere Valley was created from an ancient seabed and contains less fertile soils than the Wairau Valley. We found the Dashwood Sauvignon Blanc Wairau and Awatere Valleys 2016 ($15) to have abundant herbal notes and rich fruity flavors -- but not an abundance of grapefruit notes that are pronounced in some New Zealand sauvignon blancs.  

The Dashwood Pinot Noir Wairau and Awatere Valleys 2014 ($20) was a leaner more Burgundian style than the Goldwater sample. Aged in 20 percent French oak, it had a lean style with cherry and raspberry notes and a slight smoky edge.  

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. 

Masciarelli: a star in Montepulciano

(January 1, 2018)


Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and the barbera grapes from Piedmont are leaders in the reasonably priced, go-to wine for a casual weekday pizza or spaghetti with red sauce.  Of the two, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo offers a medium body with more moderate acidity than the barbera, as well as ripe fruit that many consumers fine appealing.   

Montepulciano -- the grape -- is not to be confused with Montepulciano -- the home town of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano or Montalcino, home of Brunello di Montalcino.  Both of these Tuscan towns are making heralded wines from the sangiovese grape. 

Recently we met with Francesca PalmitestaPalmitestaMasciarelli from Masciarelli Tenuta Agricole, producers of Masciarelli wines from the Abruzzo region of Italy.idely available, these wines use grapes from about 750 acres, according to Palmitesta. Half of Masciarelli’s production is used to produce their two flagship wines, the Masciarelli Trebbiano d’ Abruzzo 2016 ($12) and the Masciarelli Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo 2015 ($12). Both of these wines offer a simple, quaffable experience with the white trebbiano presenting bright apple and peach flavors with a streak of minerality.  

The montepulciano red wine offers cherry fruit notes with a slightly rustic smoky note that adds nice complexity.  

Although rosé wines are more commonly enjoyed in the warm months, some consumers are rightfully enjoying these wines year around. If you have “rosé flexibility” try the Masciarelli Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Villa Gemma Rosé 2016 ($18).  This delicious rosé, made from montepuliciano grapes, is one of our favorites from this year's rosé crop. It is fairly dark with richer and fuller cherry notes and a delightfully spicy element.  

We also tasted a Masciarelli Trebbiano d’ Abruzzo Marina Cvetic 2015 ($50). Named after the founder’s wife, this well-crafted white wine is amazing and shows the potential of the trebbiano grape. New French oak aging results in a beautifully expressive, fruit-driven wine that could easily compete in a white Burgundy tasting.  

The Masciarelli Marina Cvetic Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo Riserva 2014 ($30) is also aged in French barriques and produces a very elegant but expressive red wine that with ripe cherry fruit flavors. Both of these wines are outstanding and worth their price.  

Is pinot noir turning a page?

(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. 

Put bubbles into your holiday spirit with champagne

(December 18, 2017)


It seems so odd that most consumers drink champagne only at this time of the year when getting lit is less about the tree and more about celebrating the end of a year. No matter how much marketers try, champagne cannot shed its association with weddings, promotions, ship christenings, promotions, awards, success and, yes, New Year's Eve. So, give in and indulge. 

Whether you want to celebrate the holidays with a real champagne – our choice – or a knock-off, such as prosecco, is a matter between you and your pocketbook. Champagne is made only in Champagne; everything else is sparkling wine -- and the differences between the two are often more than just the name.  

Despite its image of being expensive, market competition has driven down champagne prices. It is not uncommon to find the real thing under $50.  

Perhaps the most inexpensive sparkling wine is prosecco, the Italian bubbly that has soared in sales. But the only thing it has in common with champagne are the bubbles. Prosecco, most of which is sweet, is made from the glera grapes unique to Italy while champagne comes from three grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. American sparkling wine producers have adopted the French varieties. 

We hae the Brits to thank for champagne. It started with a botched 17th century attempt to make still wine. French Benedictine monks bottled their wine when the weather cooled in the fall but before fermentation was finished. The bottles exploded when the fermentation resumed in the spring. This stumped the apologetic monks who tried to invent a better stopper. About ready to give up making wine, the monks were saved by the British – who loved what was called "the devil's wine" and who invented a stronger bottle. 

That's just about enough information to get you through a cocktail conversation. Now, let's enjoy some real champagne over the holidays: 

  • Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne ($45). You get a lot of bang for your buck with this non-vintage, full-bodied champagne. Modestly priced as champagne goes, this classic example offers a nice yeasty nose with apple and pear flavors and a long pleasing finish. The blend is 60 percent pinot noir, 25 percent pinot meunier and 15 percent chardonnay.                                                               

  • Palmer and Co. Rosé Reserve Champagne ($70). The red wine used to color this delightful rosé comes from a 30-year-old solera. Medium bodied from a blend of 49 percent pinot noir, 42 percent chardonnay, and 9 percent pinot meunier, it has pleasant berry fruit with a hint of spice and lively bubbles.    

  • Champagne Taittinger Brut Millesime 2012 ($97).  The 2012 vintage was challenged by Mother Nature with frost, hail and coulure, but what good emerged in evident in this luxurious blend of chardonnay and pinot noir. Fresh citrus notes abound in the nose and mouth with an intriguing hint of licorice. An astounding luxury wine if you want to spoil yourself. 

  • Champagne Taittinger Brut La Francaise ($62). Using all three grape varieties grown in Champagne, this fine-tuned gem has apple flavors, white peach aromas and elegance. Elegant. 

  • Henriot Brut Souverain ($45). We have such fond memories of this champagne house, now more than 200 years old, and were pleased to see its entry level champagne still offering a lot for the money. Elegant with brioche and almond aromas and sensuous flavors with citrus notes. Henriot's Blanc de Blancs ($60) with its intense nose and long finish is also an extraordinary experience to celebrate anything good in life. 

  • Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut ($40). The house wine for this venerable producer, the Imperial Brut stands the test of time. It is a complex blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. If you want to give a welcoming message to your guests as they arrive, this is your ticket. 

  • Moet & Chandon Imperial Rosé ($50). With a dash of color, this elegant rosé champagne, blended with all three grape varieties, offers generous berry aromas, peach and apricot flavors with persistent, fine bubbles and a lingering finish.                                               

  • Bruno Paillard Extra Brut Premiere Cuvee ($50). This champagne house is rather unique – it wasn't founded until 1981 and produces even less wine than Krug. But the champagne is nonetheless impressive and comparatively well priced. "Extra brut" is drier than "brut" and often confused with extra dry – which is actually a bit sweet. Confused? Just enjoy the wine. Full-bodied and balanced, it has generous citrus and mineral notes with flavors ranging from pineapple to raspberries. 

  • Champagne Collett Brut Art Deco ($42). Made by the oldest cooperative in Champagne, this brut is a blend of about 20 crus and demonstrates the elegance one seeks from champagne. Fresh, apple and tropical fruit notes. 


  • Gran Moraine Brut Rosé ($50). From the Willamette Valley, this vibrant blend of chardonnay and pinot noir has an elegant pale pink color, bright acidity, apple/cherry flavors and a persistent finish. 

  • Cote Mas Cremant de Limoux NV Brut St. Hilaire ($15-18). We’ve become big fans of the value priced sparkling wines from Languedoc produced by Domaines Paul Mas over the past several years. The Cote Mas Brut made from a blend of mostly chardonnay and chenin blanc with a bit of pinot noir and mauzac is a terrific sparkler presenting beautiful pear and lemon fruit elements with balancing acidity, and lovely brioche notes. Great balance and very quaffable.                         

  • Le Grand Courtage Blanc de Blanc Brut ($20). Meaning "the great courtship," Le Grand Courtage is a brand created by Tawnya Falkner to symbolize a blending of American and French culture. It is made in Burgundy, so the grape varieties are different than those of Champagne. The blanc de blanc comes from chardonnay, chenin blanc, colombard and ugni blanc.  Given the price, it's a lot better than many other sparkling wines in this category. Lots of apple and citrus flavors. It also comes in mini bottles (187 ml).  

  • Mumm Napa Brut Prestige ($22). Value priced, this Napa sparkling wine – a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier and pinot gris -- is simple and refreshing with a yeasty, stone-fruit nose and citrus and apple flavors. 

  • J Vineyards Russian River Valley Cuvee 20 ($38). A classic blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, this luxurious Sonoma County sparkling wine has almond and apple aromas followed by lemon curd and apple, cranberry flavors.  This is a very classy and elegant sparkling wine. 


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. 



Finding aged burgundies at the right price

(November 22, 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pinot noir: you can taste the soil, say winemakers


(September 25, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

(October 11, 2017)


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

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

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

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

The advantages are numerous: 

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

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

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

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

But there are disadvantages too: 

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

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

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

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

Here are some we tasted: 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



    August 21, 2017

    Luisa Ponzi returns to her roots


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

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

     Ponzi winemaker Luisa Ponzi

    Ponzi winemaker Luisa Ponzi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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