My column

column, blog, of wine reviews, wine criticism, wine scores, wine interviews, wineries, wine producers.

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

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. 

Unique wines make better holiday gifts

(December 6, 2017)


Last week we offered some suggestions on what to buy for the wine enthusiasts in your family. Alas, most of the gift ideas were relatively expensive and no doubt many of you said, “He ain't worth it.” 

Okay, so here’s your chance to buy something equally magnanimous but with far less money. Maybe he's worth it this time. 

Thanks to the growing popularity of wine and higher quality imports, there are many wines on the market that don’t cost an arm and a leg. But you shouldn’t be grabbing any wine from the bargain basket or any wine that has no special appeal or uniqueness. Who wants another bottle of Two-Buck Chuck?  

Instead, what about introducing your lucky friends to wines they have never tried -- godello, gruner veltliner, albarino,  charbono – or a wine from an uncommon region – Romania, Croatia, Portugal? 

Here are some relatively inexpensive wines that would put some thought into this year’s gift. If you can't find them in your local store, internet services such as will ship single bottles. 

  • Mezzacorona Vigneti Cliffhanger Vineyards Red Blend 2015 ($14).  This is a fantastic value from the Trentino region of Italy. A blend of 70 percent teroldego and 30 percent lagrein grapes grown on the steep slopes of the Dolomite Mountains, it is a full-throttle, yummy alternative to the same old red blend. Rich and ripe with cherry and blueberry flavors, a dash of spice and vanilla. It's a killer for this price.  

  • Aia Vecchia Sor Ugo Bolgheri Superiore DOC 2014 ($35). We love this approachable wine year after year. A blend of cabernet sauvignon (50 percent), merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot, it is a soft and lively wine with juicy black cherries, licorice and cassis notes.  

  • Tommasi Ripasso Valpolicella 2013 ($33). This blend from the Veneto is comprised of corvina veronese, rondinella and corvinone grapes. Made in the traditional process of refermenting the wine passed over the grape skins left over from the vinification of Tommasi’s Amarone, it is a medium-bodied wine with cedar, almond and violet aromas and tasty red berry flavors. 

  • Poggio a Tufo Rompicollo 2013 ($18). If you want to introduce your friend to super-tuscan wines, it doesn’t come any better than this. The indigenous sangiovese grapes are blended with 40 percent cabernet sauvignon to provide a ripe red berry flavor. 

  • Chateau Paul Mas Coteaux du Languedoc Clos des Mures 2015 ($20). This is one of the great buys from the Languedoc region of southern France. And, it’s 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. Expect cassis, violet and spicy aromas and dark berry, minerally flavors. Soft mouthfeel makes it drinkable now.  

  • 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.  

  • Mascota Vineyards Unanime Gran Vino Tinto 2013 ($25). This is a ridiculously good wine for the price. From Argentina, it is a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent malbec and 15 percent cabernet franc. Dense with blackberry and plum fruit flavors, a dash of licorice and chocolate.  It would be a great wine with which to start a cellar.  

  • Vietti Dolcetto d'Alba Tre Vigne 2015 ($20).  The dolcetto d'Alba grapes that go into this warm and approachable Italian wine aim to please any palate. It has a broad array of blueberry and raspberry notes.  

  • Alpha Estate Xinomavro Hedgehog Single Vineyard Amyndeon 2014 ($26). From the Amyndeon area of Macedonia in Greece, this 100 percent xinomavro wine offers an intriguing nose and flavors of anise, black pepper, and herbal notes as well as cherry fruit. A delicious red wine that would pair well with bold beef and pork dishes.  

  • Caroso Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOP Riserva 2010 ($32). This is one of the best Montepulciano d’Abruzzos we have experienced. Deep rich, very ripe berry fruit on a bigger scale than most of its genre. Still tasting fresh and lively despite 7 years of age, this is an exciting wine that is worth trying.            

  • Cline Ancient Vines Mourvedre 2015 ($15). We've been enjoying this mourvedre for more than a decade and it never ceases to please. Using grapes from Cline's oldest and most historic vineyard, the producer crafts a unique, delicious wine from low-yielding, 100-year-old vines. Black cherry and plum flavors are accented by mint and chocolate. Soft tannins make it approachable now. Highly recommended.  

  • Alois Lageder Lagrein Alto Adige DOC 2014 ($25). Lagrein is an Italian grape variety found in the Alto Adige region that can be traced back to 1300. We loved its generous flavors of ripe plums and spices with a warm mouthfeel and a savory finish. 

  • Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels "The Gimblett" 2014 ($30). This is an intriguing and fun wine from New Zealand. Known more for its sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs, New Zealand grows other grape varieties that you don't often see. This is a blend of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec grown in Hawkes Bay. Floral aromas, ripe blackberry flavor with a dash of rosemary.  


Say holidays with a gift of wine

(Nov. 29, 2017)


If you are like us, the passing of Thanksgiving meant the beginning of holiday madness. Got the lights on the house yet? Is the tree up? Have you invited guests to the holiday feast or thought about the menu? How about those gifts that will be in short supply or hard to find? Time is wasting, let's get on with the anxiety. 

To help in your quest to satisfy the wine enthusiast in your family we offer some unusual gifts and our recommendations for a special bottle of wine: 

STEMWARE.  You can't go wrong with beautiful glasses that will accent a person's special wines. We love Riedel because the designs are both elegant and particular to the grape variety. A new series from Riedel and Nachtmann depart from the norm because they have a splash of color to the stemware. Called Fatto a Mano, the Riedel collection come in six colors and six bowl shapes that can be mixed and matched.  Alas, they are  $100 a stem so this would be for that VERY special friend. 

If this is above your budget, consider Nachtmann Punk Tumblers ($19 a glass) for the man who likes his cocktails. Very detailed and available in clear crystal, copper, matte and gloss black, and red. 

Riedel stemware can be found at William & Sonoma as well as many local wine shops. Or they are available online.  

HOMEMADE GIN: Now, here's something to put in those tumblers. If you have a gin fanatic in your circle, consider the Homemade Gin Kit ($50). It has everything a person needs to make his or her own gin: bottle, funnel, filter and juniper berries, botanicals, spices and aromatics. Just start with a bottle of vodka and in 36 hours you have a hand-crafted gin to suit your gin palate. 

COOLING SLEEVES: We have several of these in our freezer, ready to cool a white wine at the last minute or to keep a wine chilled on the patio in the summer. Inexpensive ones are available in department stores for $12, but Brina has made them more beautiful for the table. Made in Italy, the Brina collection comes in metallic, various colors as well as tactile fabrics like studs and faux fur. The price starts at a lofty $65, but they make a statement. 

CUSTOM LABEL WINE: Chateau Souverain will put a person's name on a bottle of their cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay or sauvignon blanc for $14. Imagine your gift recipient seeing his or her name on the label. These can be labeled up for different occasions, too, such as birthdays, weddings, etc. 

AERATORS.  We all know letting a wine breathe frees up all those beautiful flavors and aromas. If you don't have the time to wait an hour or two, an aerator is a short cut. The simple device fits into a glass (and a holiday stocking) and expels the wine through tiny holes. They cost $25 to $30 and are made by Rabbit, Vinturi and others. They are available in kitchen stores and online. 

And here are some very special wines anyone would appreciate getting: 

  • Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Franc 2014 ($65). This venerable Napa Valley producer is well-known for its extraordinary cabernet sauvignon from Oakville ($62), but this reserve cabernet franc is special. Blended with cabernet sauvignon, malbec and merlot, the wine stands out as a sequoia in a forest of firs. Giant in scope, it unveils rich, hedonistic blueberry and blackberry flavors with a unami quality that soothes the palate. Generous violet and rosemary aromas. 
  • Beaulieu Vineyards Tapestry Reserve Red Wine Napa Valley 2014 ($65). A perennial favorite of ours, the BV Tapestry is an extraordinary and rich blend of cabernet sauvignon (76 percent), merlot, petit verdot, malbec and cabernet franc – the noble grapes that make up the Bordeaux profile.  Using specific blocks of top grapes from four AVAs, the winemaker has crafted a complex and broadly flavored wine with fine tannins and a long finish. 

  • Franciscan Estate Magnificat 2014 ($55). We have always liked this exotic and lush Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon (75 percent), merlot, malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc. Perhaps it is the rich texture or elegant style, or maybe it's just the balanced fruit character that we find so appealing. Ripe blackberries, black cherries and hints of mocha. 

  • Vietti Barolo Castiglione 2013 ($52).  Known for its complex, full-bodied wines, Vietti has another winner with this earthy barolo. Made entirely from nebbiolo grapes, the wine is aged in oak for 24-30 months before the parcels are blended. The aromas are elusive in its youth, but the approachable dark berry flavors and aggressive tannins portend good things to come. 

  • Capensis South Africa Chardonnay 2014 ($80). From the Western Cape region, this bold and opulent chardonnay shows the capability of this region. Rich and buttery in style, it has ripe tropical fruit flavors, a dash of spice, vanillin oak, and soft mouthfeel.  

  • Quilt Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2103 ($110).  If you liked the full throttle experience that Joseph Wagner brought to pinot noir with Meomi, you’ll love this current release from his Copper Cane family of wines. Very deep and dense black cherry and berry nose and flavors with some chocolate and vanilla notes. Great to drink now.    

  • Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($125). This iconic Chilean wine has been on Wine Spectator's Top 100 wine list seven times. From the Maipo Valley, it deserves the accolades.  Dark red berries, cassis, a bit of chocolate, fine tannins and a lot of finesse. 

  • Tasca d'Almerita "Il Tascante" Sicilia DOC 2014 ($50). Made from old vines grown on the northeast slope of Mt. Etna, this Nerello Mascalese has intense floral aromas and rich dark berry fruit flavors. Fine tannins and sensuous finish. Unique. 

Finding aged burgundies at the right price

(November 22, 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many choices for Thanksgiving wines

(November 13, 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Californians -- and us -- heal from fires

(November 8, 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some Sonoma and Napa wines to enjoy now: 

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

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

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

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

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

Some inexpensive pinot noirs to consider

(October 31, 2017)


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

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

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

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

Here are several we recommend:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinot noir: you can taste the soil, say winemakers


(September 25, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

(October 11, 2017)


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

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

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

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

The advantages are numerous: 

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

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

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

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

But there are disadvantages too: 

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

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

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

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

Here are some we tasted: 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zinfandel: America's mostly-American grape

(October 4, 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Where is the Central Coast?


(September 27, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't overlook Alsace

(September 20, 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some recently tasted Alsace wines: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinot gris, pinot blanc, pinot grigio, pinot noir

(September 4, 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

Here are some versions we recently tasted: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 21, 2017

Luisa Ponzi returns to her roots


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

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

Ponzi winemaker Luisa Ponzi

Ponzi winemaker Luisa Ponzi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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