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Really cool wines for summer heat

(August 23, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

August is one of the hottest months, no matter where you live. Whether it's dry heat, high humidity or passing thunderstorms, weather keeps us indoors these days. Sipping on a cabernet sauvignon in such trying times is met with palate resistance even with the AC cranked up. Our palates are thirsting for a cool white wine with refreshing acidity. 

You've gone through countless chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and pinot grigios, right? This week, we're tempting you with some unusual wines. We discovered these over the last month or so and we're intrigued by their unusual flavors.  

Because these white wines are unusual, they may be hard to find. If you can't these specific producers, ask for a substitute who uses the same grape variety. Have fun! 

·         Gotin del Risc Godello 2013 ($15). From the Bierzo region of Spain, this luscious godello will remind you of pinot grigo. But it is not. Very broad flavors of pears and apples with aromas of freshly cut flowers. Soft and generous mouthfeel. 

·          Quinto da Raza Vinho Verde 2016 ($12). This is a terrific, fresh vinho verde made from the indigenous Portuguese grapes arinto, azal and trajadura. Excellent fruit flavors of apple and pear with crisp acidity and a bit of frizzante.  

·         Vietti Roero Arneis 2016 ($23). Now in its 50th year, this bottling excites the palate with a bit of frizzante, good acidity and lively citrus and melon flavors. Clean and refreshing to the palate, it employs the arneis grape that this producer popularized in the 1960s. Although it dates back to the 1400s, only recently has the grape variety achieved recognition. 

·         E. Guigal Condrieu 2015 ($65). Tom remembers a stay at a Relais & Chateau in the village of Condrieu back in the 1980s. An incredible dinner was accented with his first Guigal Condrieu, one of the most exotic white wines he's ever tasted. No where else does the viognier grape reach such heights. Very aromatic, the Condrieu is complex with stone fruit flavors and a delicacy that would complement any fine dinner.   

·         E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Blanc 2015 ($15). From the same great producer, this reasonably priced blend – usually clairette, grenache blanc, bourboulenc and viognier – resembles the higher priced Condrieu in style. It is dominated by honeysuckle, pear and mineral notes. 

·         Quevedo Oscar's White 2016 ($16).  OK, you have never heard of the grapes: viosinho, gouveio and arinto. But, maybe that's what makes this Portuguese wine so much fun. It's spirited with generous aromas of fresh tropical fruit and pear, citrus flavors with a good bit of mineral.   

·         Vinas del Vero La Miranda Secastilla Garnacha Blanca 2013 ($15). From old bush vineyards in the foothills of the Pyrenees of Spain, this fruity and delicious wine is made from a light-skinned mutation of the red grenache grape. Highly aromatic, it burst in white stone fruit flavors, citrus and a dash of spice. It may be aged a little too long in oak, but if you like those flavors, you'll love this softly textured wine. 

·         Jean-Marc Brocard Saint-Bris Ica-onna Sauvignon 2015 ($17). A sauvignon blanc from Burgundy? Yep, this fun and lively wine comes from the Saint-Bris AOC, located near the Yonne Department and southwest of Chabis. Classic sauvignon blanc aromas but with a bit of sulphur and stone fruit, flintstone and smooth texture. Less acidity than most sauvignon blancs but more body. 

·         Monte dos Cabacos Tinto 2009 ($21). Wow, talk about delicious. A Portuguese blend of alicante bouschet (45 percent), touriga nacional, aragonez and cabernet sauvignon, it has ripe black fruit flavors and a rich, lasting finish.  

·          Abbazia di Novacella Sylvaner Alto Adige DOC 2016 ($18). This region in northern Italy produces some amazing and refreshing wines from grapes unfamiliar to most of us. Ever hear of schiava, for instance? This sylvaner is an elegant, delicious white wine that offers a lot of refreshing tropical fruit and apple flavors. 

·         Capofaro Malvasia Didyme Salina IGT 2016 ($25). The first dry malvasia to made on the Sicilian island of Salena, this fascinating white wine finesse. Very aromatic, it has balanced acidity and herbal notes.  

·         Priest Ranch Grenache Blanc 2016 ($22). This producer makes the only estate-grown grenache blanc in Napa Valley. It's aged in stainless steel to preserve its bright acidity and clean stone fruit flavors.  

COOL RED WINES 

·         Cantina Dolianova Dolia Cannonau di Sardegna DOC 2015 ($13.50). On the Italian island of Sardinia, grenache is known as cannonau. Whatever you call it, this wine offers blackberry and ripe plum notes with good acidity, a dash of bacon, and medium body. It is an ideal wine to pair with pizza and burgers. 

·         Abadia Retuerta Sardon de Duero Seleccion Especial 2013 ($30). It is hard to express how much we loved this Spanish blend of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and other red grape varieties.  It is a big wine that can be aged or paired with a good steak, and it is a wine that can be enjoyed in even warmer days alongside the grill. From the Ribera del Duero's "golden mile," the wine is loaded with rich blackberry aromas and flavors with a dose of cocoa and vanilla.  

·         Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon 2014 ($15).  When you think of the Loire Valley, you think of sauvignon blanc. But in Chinon the primary grape is the red cabernet franc. From one of the most respected producers in the region, this Chinon is made to age but on release shows off luscious blueberry and blackberry fruit. We recently opened an 8-year-old Baudry Chinon and it was drinking beautifully with soft, mature fruit, intense aromas and good length.  

Bodegas Muriel shows how times have changed

(August 10, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR  

The wine world is constantly evolving. Fifty years ago -- a blink of the eye for some of us -- France was the preeminent producer of world-class wines. Although most Americans had not tasted a great wine from Bordeaux or Burgundy, there certainly was a vague awareness that these storied regions were the source of great wines. Italy and Germany were minor players,  producing inexpensive plonk, and California was noted for their post-Prohibition jug wines.  

Fast forward to present day and, while France is still certainly a leading producer of world-class wines, American, Italian, German and Spanish wines are some of the best and most competitive in the world.   

The newest region to attain this well-deserved recognition is the Rioja region of Spain. Tempranillo is the dominant red grape of Rioja, although it is frequently blended with garnacha (grenache) and mazuelo (carignan).  

A recent meeting with Eladio Fernandez, export manager of Bodegas Muriel, gave us a chance to taste their Rioja offerings as well as a delightful albarino from Rias Baixas. Bodegas Muriel is a large producer of Rioja with ownership of several wineries producing 1 million cases of wine per year.   

The Muriel Vendimia Seleccionada Blanco 2015 is a steal at $12. A perfect summer sipper, this clean, 100 percent viura offered thirst-quenching apple and citrus flavors with balanced acidity.   

We also enjoyed the Pazo Cilleiro Albarino Rias Baixas 2015 ($20) made entirely from albarino grapes, which presented a bit more acidity and citrus notes than the viura. The albarino grapes are grow

Some sauvignon blancs to keep up the spirits

(August 2, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

We have found over time that people who hate chardonnay seem to gravitate to sauvignon blanc because it is distinctly different and more refreshing on warm days. We get that it's crisp acidity and generous grapefruit flavors are palate cleansers, but on the same token the grassy and citrus attack on the palate can make the mouth pucker. Finding the right sauvignon blanc for your palate is like walking through a minefield. 

In general, New Zealand sauvignon blancs have more grassiness. Not everyone likes a wine that reminds them of freshly mowed grass.  

California sauvignon blancs are all over the board. We favor those that add some musque clone to round off the flavors. Adding semillon also can mute the astringency of sauvignon blanc. 

Here are some sauvignon blancs we recently tasted and enjoyed: 

  • Decoy Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($20). From the fabulous Duckhorn portfolio, this simple sauvignon blanc with a dash of sweetness delivers generous flavors and good texture.  Varietal grapefruit character with good acidity and a dash of sweetness that seems to round off the edges. 

  • Matanzas Creek Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($15). Every year this wine strikes us as one of the most unique in a crowd of typical, varietal sauvignon blancs. It is due to the winemaker's daring use of various clones, including the assertive musque clone that provides big aromas and a peach and mango profile.   

  • Flora Springs Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($26). This wine was aged for seven months in a combination of stainless steel, oak and concrete to give it more complexity. Layered grapefruit, pear and citrus flavors with a dash of spice on the finish. Deliciously round in the mouth. 

  • Quivira Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($18). One of our favorite of this year's sauvignon blancs, this Dry Creek version has grassy aromas but ripe and sweet melon and pineapple flavors.  

  • Sidebar High Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($20). David and Carla Ramey founded this Lake County winery just a few years ago and these new releases show the winemaker's talents.  This sauvignon blanc is aged sur lies in a variety of vessels and includes some musque clone to give it more texture. Crisp acidity and grapefruit, citrus flavors. Sidebar’s single vineyard Ritchie sauvignon blanc is a tasting experience but will set you back $34. 

  • Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Aveta Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($26). The musque clone in this incredible sauvignon blanc and 6 months of sur lies aging provides a delicious roundness and some unique flavors not often seen in your normal sauvignon blanc. In short, we loved it.  Mango, tangerine notes with crisp acidity, just a touch of grass, excellent balance and length. One of our favorite sauvignon blancs this year. 

  • Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County 2015 ($22). Matanzas Creek has produced world-class sauvignon blanc since 1977, and this example is no exception. Very elegant without the excessive acidity and overwhelming citrus notes that plague some sauvignon blancs. It is blended with a mellowing dose of 7 percent semillon. That and 20 percent barrel fermentation in neutral oak barrels produces a balanced drink featuring grapefruit and peach elements.  

  • Mud House Sauvignon Blanc 2915 ($17). Fresh from New Zealand, this zingy sauvignon blanc has varietal grapefruit character and herbal aromas. Balanced and having good acidity, it will do well with spring fare. 

  • Wither Hills Winery Rarangi Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2015 ($25). This New Zealand producer is new to us, but we were impressed with its two sauvignon blancs from the Wairu. This single-vineyard edition is packed with citrus and grapefruit flavors.   

  • Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($25).  A little semillon goes a long way in this delicious quaff. Bright acidity but a mid-palate roundness that reminds us of melon and apples. Nice citrus aromas too. 

  • Shooting Star Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($14). Good varietal character and, although simple, delivers good value. Fresh acidity, grapefruit flavors and some nice citrus zest. 

  • Ladera Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($30). The sauvignon musque clone in this wine gives a broader and melon profile that we so enjoy. Varietal grapefruit flavors are complemented by lemon zest and fresh acidity. 

  • Montes Spring Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($16).  Citrus and peach notes dominate this floral and crisp sauvignon blanc from the Leyda Valley in Chile. 

  • Gamble Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($25). Four clones, including musque, are used to create this wonderful, multi-dimensional wine. 

  • Nobilo Icon Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($22).  This New Zealand wine has many fans in our circle. Classic citrus and copious grapefruit flavors with tangy citrus notes. This is for those of you who like your bold New Zealand sauvignon blancs. 

  • Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc 2015 ($20). Mondavi clings to its iconic "fume" when labeling its long-serving sauvignon blanc. That pleases us because it has a unique style with expressive aromas and layered citrus and peach flavors.  Rich texture is boosted by a bit of semillon added to the blend. 

  • Mercer Horse Heaven Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($15). Grapefruit and citrus notes with a dash of lychee. 

  • Kendall-Jackson Avant California Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($13). Very nice apple and lemon notes with a bit of sweetness and a good balance. 

  • Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($18). Beautiful aromatics with generous grapefruit and lime flavors, balanced acidity and long finish.  

The Left and Right Banks of Napa Valley

(July 17, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

If you've been to Bordeaux you understand it is split into two basic regions: the Left Bank and the Right Bank. Facing west from Bordeaux, the Left Bank is south of the Garonne and Gironde Rivers, and the Right Bank is north of the Dordogne and Gironde.  

Although both regions can use the same grape varieties – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, malbec, and cabernet franc – the Left Bank producers focus more on cabernet sauvignon while the Right Bank producers focus more on merlot. 

Napa Valley is divided by appellations but there never has been an attempt to rank the wines according to quality, akin to the Left Bank's growth classification. It would be cataclysmic if any one dared to try.  However, some producers have fashioned wines after a Left or Right Bank profile.  Some blends – called "meritage" -- are round and supple -- more like the merlots from the Right Bank. Others, are tannic cabernet sauvignons meant to age. 

Typically, Bordeaux reds are more restrained and balanced while Napa Valley wines are richer, more opulent and oaky. However, in recent vintages there is more common ground between the regions  – Bordeaux producers have been making more rich and fruit-forward wines and Napa Valley producers are pulling back from the hedonistic, jammy monsters of yore. 

Categorizing California wines may be foolhardy because doing so is likely to be met with vehement disagreement. Identifying a wine as either Left or Right Bank is as much about the style of the wine as it about its grape composition. Just because a wine is mostly cabernet sauvignon doesn't mean it's a Left Bank style of wine. 

NAPA'S LEFT BANK 

  •  Gamble Paramount 2013 ($90). From one of Napa's prestigious wine producers, this blend of cabernet sauvignon (33 percent), merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot brings home Bordeaux character and power. Huge, layered aromas range from black cherries to herbs. Rich and textured flavors reminiscent of  wild blackberries and a hint of tobacco. This one is good for at least 10 years in the cellar.  
  • Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($160).  This immense cab uses grapes from its prized Calistoga estate vineyard. The producer marries complexity with balance in a nice package of generous raspberry aromas and rich red berry fruit with tantalizing hints of mocha and mineral.  

  • Priest Ranch Coach Gun Napa Valley 2013 ($80).  This Napa Valley producer makes incredibly concentrated wines high up the Vaca mountain range, but the Coach Gun is a standout. Concentrated, rich, textured and softly layered in black cherry, black berry and cassis fruit flavors. All five Bordeaux grape varieties are used to make this a full body wine.  

  • Neyers "Left Bank" Red Blend 2014 ($30). An even split of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, we might argue this is more Right Bank. It has the classic American style of rich (almost sweet) cola flavors with generous and forward raspberry and cassis fruit.   Good value. 

  • Robert Sinskey Stag's Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($110). The label on this exquisite and complex wine is gorgeous. But it's not just a pretty face at stake. Inside the bottle is a dense, tannic monster with cassis and spicy aromas followed by red berry and herbal flavors. Sinskey's RSV wine from warmer Carneros vineyards is styled more after Right Bank wines. 

  • Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($72). Cabernet sauvignon dominates this Napa Valley monster, but the rest is a combination of merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc – truly a Bordeaux blend. Layered dark berry aromas with a bit of wet saddle; dense flavors of black berries with firm tannins. 

NAPA'S RIGHT BANK 

  • Ramey Napa Valley Template 2014 ($85). With Mt. Veeder merlot being 70 percent of this blend, there is a round and smooth texture that begs for a second serving. But this is no simple merlot. The big dose of cabernet franc gives the wine good color and aromatics.  

  • Duckhorn Stout Vineyard Merlot 2013 ($98). Using grapes grown on Howell Mountain, this sturdy merlot has excellent structure to rank with the great wines of the Right Bank. Wild, mountain-typical raspberry and cassis flavors with hints of cocoa, earth and licorice. Big tannins give it promise for aging if you have the patience. 

  • Webster Cellars Right Bank Red Blend 2013 ($75). This is a warm and soft blend of cabernet sauvignon (60 percent), merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc. Floral aromas, opulent blackberry flavors and fine tannin. 

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

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

Finding the right chardonnay for you

(July 10, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

American consumers have a love/hate relationship with chardonnay. Still the king in white wine sales – 20 percent of all wine sales last year – chardonnay is as reviled as it is adored.  Either it is a tasty wine with lush tropical fruit flavors and disguised sweetness or it’s Kool-aid with no redeeming value.  

However tightly fans cling to its delicious character, critics find it's profile so discordant and flighty that chardonnay just can't seem rise to the level set by great burgundies.  Although some California producers aspire to produce a burgundian-like chardonnay with elegance and style, opportunists have jumped on the grape's success with sweet, over-extracted and over-oaked fruit bombs.  

One new producer – Notable – has even created two versions that conveniently help you choose between a chardonnay that is fruity and crisp (Australia) or oaky and buttery (California). They sell for $15 each and give you a decent comparison of the two styles. 

Those looking to define their chardonnay palates would be wise to gather a few to taste the differences that money can make. Alas, the French burgundies are prohibitively expensive but you could start with an inexpensive chardonnay from the Macon region or even pick an austere and minerally chablis. Both regions produce chardonnays that are starkly different than those made in the rest of the world.  

Pay attention to barrel aging – one of the most significant influences to an oak-vulnerable chardonnay. Oak provides complexity but also butterscotch, caramel, mocha, honey and vanilla flavors. This may sound delicious to you, but to others it is an odyssey at the candy store.  

That this style has met with new and growing resistance has spawned a field of chardonnays that are unoaked. Indisputably, these chardonnays complement food much better. You'll clobber Dover sole with a fruit bomb, but elevate it with an unoaked, pure chardonnay.  However, those who abhor these chemistry experiments shouldn't be surprised to find an unoaked chardonnay shocking: your palate is so conditioned to taste oaky chardonnays that a naked version will blast the palate with a certain astringency. 

Here are a few chardonnays to guide your palate. We have additional chardonnay reviews on our website, MoreAboutWine.com.   

THE LUSH 

  • J. Lohr October Night Chardonnay 2015 ($25).  This California producer doesn’t mess around when it comes to making boldly flavored chardonnays from a variety of clones. This profile is due largely to the stirring of the lees and malolactic fermentation that tend to give this chardonnay more dimension and texture. This one from Monterey County has opulent tropical fruit and peach flavors with hints of vanilla and coconut.  

  • Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Chardonnay 2015 ($44).  This full-throttle Sonoma County chardonnay gets a full treatment of malolatic fermentation, sur lies aging and whole-cluster pressing to provide concentrated and forward fruit flavors. Apples and pears with a dash of mineral and caramel with moderate oak. 

  • Wente Vineyards Riva Ranch Chardonnay 2014 ($22). Wente makes some of the best values in wine. This delicious example, spiked with a bit of gewurztraminer, has a full mouthfeel and a good dose of vanilla as a result of 90 percent barrel fermentation. Full malolatic fermentation and sur lies aging adds a creamy, buttery character. 

  • Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Chardonnay 2013 ($35). Reasonably priced for the complexity you get here, the Duckhorn is swathed in oak with vanilla and butterscotch notes to add to the pear and peach flavors. 

  • Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay 2013 ($22).  People want to condemn K-J chardonnay because it's so common on the market, but bang for your buck it provides a consistent, well-made value chardonnay, albeit a tad sweet.  

  • Bread & Butter Chardonnay 2015 ($15). Lots of oaky flavors burst from this value chardonnay. Vanilla, tropical fruit and citrus flavors with a creamy mouthfeel. 

  • Dolin Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 ($39). From the ideal Santa Maria Valley, this delicious chardonnay has good complexity and balance. Full-bodied with apple and pear notes with a hint of nutmeg, orange zest and coconut.  

THE CRISP 

  • Jordan Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2015 ($32).  This reasonably priced, full-bodied chardonnay overdelivers with excellent balance, crisp acidity, bright peach and apricot flavors and a distinctive minerality.   

  • La Follette Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 ($38). This silky chardonnay retains good acidity and a mineral component that keep it from going over the top. There is a dose of oak and vanilla, though. Peach and spice dominate the flavor profile. 

  • Sea Smoke Chardonnay 2014 ($60). Just about everything from this Santa Rita Hills producer is smoking hot. Albeit expensive, we thoroughly enjoyed the Burgundy-like elegance of its estate chardonnay. The generous use of stainless steel tanks keeps the wine fresh and the fruit pure. The use of new French oak barrels (55 percent) adds a touch of vanilla to the mango and citrus flavors. 

  • Domaine des Valanges Macon-Prisse Le Clos 2015 ($15). We love the chardonnays from this region of Burgundy. Using grapes from older vines and stainless-steel fermentation, freshness and crisp acidity are preserved. Delicate nectarine and citrus aromas with focused apple and tropical fruit flavors. A great value from the Macon. 

  • Joseph Drouhin Laforet Chardonnay 2015 ($12). This venerable Burgundy producer has had a secondary line of wines called Laforet that represent great value. They may not have the character of Drouhin's premier cru burgundies, but they express the terroir. 

  • Clos du Val Estate Chardonnay Carneros 2015 ($35).  Only 20 percent of this wine underwent malolactic fermentation and only 20 percent of new oak was used during 10 months of barrel fermentation. That restraint preserves the pure fruit and acidity of this delicious and balanced chardonnay. 

THE NAKED 

  • Stoller Dundee Hills Chardonnay 2016 ($25).  Tasted in a flight of several chardonnays, we had to check the label to make sure this wasn't a sauvignon blanc. Without the oak treatment, the unoaked Stoller chardonnay stands out in a crowd. Crisp and unadulterated with tropical fruit and distinct lemon flavors.

Making zinfandel great again

June 28, 2017

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

Zinfandel has taken a strange and often twisted course in its evolution. Even more so than pinot noir, zinfandel's route has enough ups and downs to make a sober person tipsy.  Once the pride of Italian immigrants who found California's hot regions had ideal growing conditions, zinfandel struggled to gain footing in a market that idolized noble French varieties like cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. 

It's struggle has been worsened internationally by its near exclusivity to U.S. soil. With a few exceptions, zinfandel is not planted anywhere else, although it is thought to be a relative of Italy's primitivo grape and has its origins in Croatia.  It's certainly not the only grape variety confined to one growing region, but outside of the United States zinfandel just isn't in the game. 

Gaining recognition has been hobbled by episodic diversions, too, most notably the white zinfandel craze that associated the variety with sweet, cheap plonk. Although white zinfandel sales are quickly declining, it nearly doubles red zinfandel in sales. 

But there was once a zenith when zinfandel was a cult wine made by dedicated craftsmen in appellations such as Dry Creek Valley. We fondly remember the days when small producers like Rafanelli, Grgich Hills, Edmeades, Ridge, Hendry and others were competing for attention. In the right hands and in the right regions, zinfandel can earn special recognition.  

We were musing zinfandel's odyssey the other day while talking to Gary Sitton, director of winemaking for Ravenswood. Sitton knows the grape's track record all too well. He is slowly transitioning into the pilot seat as Ravenswood's founder, Joel Peterson, moves into semi-retirement. Peterson is known as the "godfather of wine" for elevating the brand to iconic status decades ago. At one time, Sitton said Ravenswood accounted for one out of every four bottles of zinfandel sold. 

Gary Sitton, left, and Joel Peterson, outgoing winemaker and founder.

Gary Sitton, left, and Joel Peterson, outgoing winemaker and founder.

Peterson sold the facility to Constellation Brands in 2001 and, like all conglomerates, Constellation sought to increase profits by exploiting its most popular wine. Ravenswood's iconic Vintner's Blend became a supermarket staple and annual production was increased to 500,000 cases. It's a deal at about $10 a bottle, but it's a shadow of Peterson's original version. 

However, Ravenswood's chances of putting the genie back in the bottle rest in its single-vineyard zinfandels. We've been tasting these wines for more than a decade and they remain impressive – still the handcrafted wines we remember.  

"We are at the crossroads as Ravenswood started out as a high-end, cult status brand," Sitton said. "We've grown the appellation tier of our zinfandel and out of necessity we started growing the Vintner's Blend. When you start that, you are wildly successful. But at the same time you try to remain relevant." 

He said there has been some erosion of the brand's presence in restaurants because owners just won't put a brand on the wine list that can be found in supermarkets.  Instead, he said the tasting room and club sales have picked up some of the slack. Ravenswood's appellation series and single-vineyard series are seeing growth. 

Another interesting twist in zinfandel's lifespan has been its increased presence in California blends, an emerging market for consumers. A prolific, high-yielding grape variety that can be planted in places like Lodi where land is relatively cheap, zinfandel is an inexpensive foundation grape for a lot of upstart brands. Sitton doesn't see this as a threat, though. 

"I don't fear zinfandel becoming a generic blending grape," he said. "It's a beverage wine like white zinfandel and Yellowtail. Yes, you do have a lower price point but this is a positive emergence into a fuller bodied wine....it's an opportunistic category." 

Sitton feels that the best zinfandel is not over-extracted but full bodied and balance, not overripe or over-oaked. He said the single-vineyard zins – just a few in a portfolio of 30 wines of many grape varieties – showcase the stellar vineyards that has been in the Ravenswood family for years.  

These single-vineyard zins have the best chance to buff the patina from this storied brand: 

  • Ravenswood Teldeschi Zinfandel 2013 ($39). Wow, what a mouthful of Dry Creek Valley bliss. Full bodied, dense, tannic and loaded with blueberry and blackberry flavors with healthy doses of licorice and chocolate. Petite sirah accounts for 19 percent of the wine and its color. This is a wine to serve with serious barbecue. 

  • Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 2014 ($39).  We like the floral and anise aromas in thissmooth but deceiving single-vineyard wine. It has the classic varietal flavors of blackberries with a dash of pepper. 

CHARDONNAY PICKS 

  • Sonoma-Loeb Envoy Chardonnay 2015 ($38). Chappellet acquired this property in 2011 and has been applying its magic to some pretty good grape sources. We're betting good things will come to this chardonnay and pinot noir house. The Envoy, made in small quantities, hits all the right notes for those who like their chardonnay rich and lush: tropical fruit flavors with lemon and peach notes and a healthly dose of vanillin oak.  

  • Stonestreet Estate Chardonnay 2015 ($40). Rich texture with noticeable oak and ample peach/lemon curd flavors. Vanillin oak with some citrus notes.   

  • La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2015 ($23). A good value, this chardonnay is round and medium-bodied with lemon aromas and melon, peach flavors. Soft on the palate with a hint of spice and lemon.  

  • Miner Family Winery Wild Yeast Chardonnay 2012 ($50).  This heady and rich, full-bodied chardonnay has the guts to stand up to the most complicated seafood dishes yet is delicious to enjoy by itself. Luxurious in texture, it has ripe pear and melon notes with a dominant dose of butterscotch.   

 

Hahn wines deliver value; petite sirah for the grill

(June 21, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

Good timing is often the handmaiden of success. That certainly applies to the family founders of Hahn Family Wines, the largest growers in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands.  

Purchasing what were horse and cattle ranches in Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County for $3,000 per acre in 1979 was superlative timing -- the vineyard land now sells for $70,000 per acre. Another good piece of timing was the decision in the early 1990s to expensively rip out perfectly healthy but underperforming Bordeaux varietals to plant more appropriate, cool-climate pinot noir and chardonnay.   

Today pinot noir dominates the Santa Lucia Highland AVA. Pinot noir thrives in cool winds from Monterey Bay and warm sunshine from the elevated vineyards, above the fog in the Salinas Valley.  

We recently met with Philip Hahn, chairman of Hahn Family Wines, who explained how his father, Nicky, was instrumental in the creation of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA in 1991 as a sub AVA. Santa Lucia Highlands is situated about an hour southeast of Carmel and Monterey. About 50 growers – including Talbott, Caymus and Pisoni -- grow mostly chardonnay and pinot noir in this AVA. 

We were impressed with the price-value ratio of Hahn’s wines, especially its entry-level pinot gris, pinot noir and grenache-syrah-mourvedre blend. Philip commented that their low cost of acquiring vineyard land is certainly a factor in their consumer-friendly pricing.  

The 2016 Hahn Pinot Gris Monterey ($15) is a ripe and rich version of this grape with delicious pear flavors and nose. The 2015 Hahn Pinot Noir Monterey County ($15) was beautifully expressive with cherry and berry scents and flavors, in a well-balanced package that drinks above its price point. Hahn’s 2015 GSM blend ($15) was a pure delight with strawberry and cherry flavors that exploded in the mouth.  

Hahn commented that “this is a food wine," although we believe this wine can easily be enjoyed by itself, or as an accompaniment to food.  

A step up in quality and price is the 2015 Hahn SLH Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands ($30). Crafted from all estate grapes this is a complex and pleasing pinot noir that expresses a spicy cinnamon nose and perky not overly ripe cherry fruit and a hint of earth in the finish. This is a lot of pinot noir for the price.   

Hahn owns the Smith & Hook label producing warm climate red table wines from Bordeaux varietals. We especially liked the 2013 Smith & Hook Proprietary Red Blend ($25). The blend of mostly merlot and malbec along with a dash of petite sirah and cabernet sauvignon was a gutsy red wine that would feel very comfortable next to a grilled medium rare rib-eye steak. Ample ripe cherry and cassis fruit are balanced with a good dose of soft tannins for palate cleansing with rich fatty foods. Delicious!   

PETITE SIRAH  

With grilling season on us, there is no better time to drink petite sirah with grilled food.   

"Petite" is an oxymoron. It is by far the inkiest colored red wines in existence and it is one of the most dense. It's forward, juicy and often ripe character makes it an ideal match to meats and ketchup-based sauces that you may put on ribs and burgers.  

Specialty winemakers such as Kent Rosenblum and Abe Schroener are waxing their genius on this often-overlooked grape. Not surprisingly, they have taken petite sirah to new levels.  

Here are a few we really like:   

  •  Michael David Petite Petit 2015 ($18). Using grapes from the hot Lodi appellation, this blend of petite sirah and petit verdot is big. Blueberry flavors with a dash of black pepper. The name is a combination of the talented Michael and David Phillips, who also make some incredible zinfandels.  

  • Michael David Earthquake Petite Sirah 2014 ($26). Made entirely of petite sirah, this inky monster has violet aromas and wild huckleberry flavors, sage and a hint of sweet vanillin oak.  

  • Rock Wall Le Mur de Roche 2012 ($60). Kent Rosemblum sold his winery in 2008, but then bankrolled Rock Wall for his winemaking daughter, Shauna.  This single-vineyard petite sirah has a lot of power and density. You could cut this with a knife and lay it on toast in the morning. Inky, it has lush blackberry liqueur flavors with a dose of tea, vanilla and citrus. Delicious now but begging for age.  

  • Rock Hall Jack's Petite Sirah 2014 ($35). Raspberry aromas with plum, pepper and tobacco flavors. Lush, long finish.  

  • Tenbrink Vineyards and Winery Petite Sirah 2015 ($50). First, you're struck by the beautifully simple label of this unusual wine, then by the complexity inside. Winemaker Abe Schoener, who has maintained his cult status with outlier wines, joins Steve Tenbrink to use grapes from the Suisun Valley near Fairfield, CA. to make a very complex and bold petite sirah.  

The perfect tie-less gift for dad

(June 12, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

With Father's Day quickly approaching, many of you are probably focused on ties – the proverbial gift for the dad in the family. But, really, does the guy really need another tie? Can't you think of something more original. 

Look, the family dude would rather spend the day on the golf course or fishing on is boat, so there are oddles of gifts involving those two activities. But, if you're stumped, how about a great bottle of wine he wouldn't buy for himself? 

We men are stubborn about opening the pocketbook for wine, but if someone else wants to do that, we'll drink it. We might even share it. A good tie can cost $80; a good wine can cost much less. Open wallet, buy him an expensive bottle of wine and shower him with love. 

  • Michael Mondavi Family Estate Animo Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($85). Drawing grapes from the esteemed Atlas Peak, this complex wine shows off copious blackberry and chocolate aromas with full-throttle blackbery and cassis flavors, dusty tannins and a bit of mineral.  

  •  Duckhorn Napa Valley The Discussion Red Wine 2013 ($135). Cabernet sauvignon and merlot make up most of this very complex but approachable delight with a bit of cabernet franc and petit verdot thrown in for dimension. Supple tannins provide a soft landing on the palate but underneath that are layered and rich flavors of dark berries, cassis and a hint of vanilla. 

  • Cliff Lede Scarlet Love Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($110). Does the man of the house love rock music and wine? So does Cliff Lede who likes to name his wines and vineyards after some of his favorite performers. Scarlot Love is made from his Scarlet Begonia's block (Grateful Dead) and his Sunshine of Your Love block (Cream) -- both in the prized Stag's Leap District.  The intense aromas remind us of a chocolate-covered cherry and with a bit of licorice to boot. The flavor profile is dense with layered cherry, cassis and black berry. A bit of merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot goes into this complex blend. 

  • Gaja Pieve Santa Restituta 2012 ($75). Is there some – or lots – of Italian in the father of the family? This year Gaja blended three crus into one estate wine and changed his barrel assortment. And 2012 was a great vintage – warmer and drier – that produced richer wines. This gem is massive yet elegant. Extracted, rich and hedonistic, it struts a floral bouquet and black cherry, cassis, and plum fruit flavors with hints of licorice and vanilla. It is one of the best and most complex brunellos we've tasted in a long time. 

  • Duckhorn Vineyards Atlas Peak Merlot 2014 ($75). The mountain-grown grapes in this wine produce a heady profile with generous aromas of cherry cola and sage. The velvet texture is deceiving: it's a big wine but ready for drinking now alongside a big steak. 

  • Rodney Strong Symmetry Red Meritage 2013 ($55). Very broad on the palate, this Alexander Valley wine reveals a profile that includes cassis, blackberries, dark chocolate and plums. Very rich texture and long in the finish. 

  • Clos du Val Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($52). Coffee aromas jump from the glass of this well-tuned cabernet. Plum and chocolate flavors make for a delicious quaff. 

  • Bootleg Red Blend 2013 ($38). We love the masculine label of his ecletic blend of seven red grapes. Perfect impression! Opulent with ripe blackberry and plum flavors. 

  • Viansa Sonoma Chardonnay Signature Series 2013 ($45). Medium-bodied, this is a chardonnay to serve at the dinner table with creamy, rich sauces. Soft mouthfeel with stone-pit fruit flavors and apple notes.  

  • Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($58). Red currant, blackberry and cocoa aromas open the door to a layered, fruit forward wine with raspberry flavors and a dash of mint. Balanced acidity.  

  • St. Supery Napa Valley Estate Elu 2013 ($75). This blend of Bordeaux grape varieties has body and concentration. Anise aroma – classic of Napa Valley – leads off a fragrant wine and is followed by rich blackberry and cassis flavors with hints of expresso.  

  • Clos Pegase Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($50). The blended grapes in this voluptuous wine have more than a supporting role. Petit verdot, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah and Malbec give the 75 percent cabernet sauvignon a burst of flavor, aromas and body. Flavors widely range from black cherries to plums with hints of cedar, licorice and sage.   Dense and forward.     

A few good words about J. Lohr, Goldeneye

(June 5, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

What do people want in their wine? Is it as simple as great flavor – or as complicated as complexity, richness and age-worthiness? 

Ask most consumers and they’ll opt for the former. Ask those of us who either collect wine or write about it and it’s likely to be the latter. That’s why there is often a disconnect between readers who spend no more than $15 for a simple pinot grigio and critics who dole out $200 for a mind-blowing burgundy.   

When we recently tasted a couple of J. Lohr pinot noirs, the lightbulb went off when several guests said Lohr wines were among their favorites.  

J. Lohr has been making wines in California since the late 1970s and his vineyard holdings are from Paso Robles, Santa Lucia Highlands and St. Helena.  It is known more for their cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays, but our recent focus was on their pinot noirs. 

What makes them so popular? It’s their hedonistic appeal, stupid. 

Any wine enthusiast who demands finesse and refined flavors will not find them as appealing. They clobber the palate with juicy, extracted fruit whether the grape variety be red or white. They are almost a meal in themselves, thus pleasing consumers looking first for big, rich flavors. 

To find out J. Lohr’s secrets, we turned to its winemaker Steve Peck.  In an email he explained what goes into making the J. Lohr Fog’s Reach and Highlands Bench pinot noirs. 

“We are making wines we like to drink and hope that consumers agree,” he said. 

He says he starts with grapes that have longer hang time than most others – “something like 65-70 days post veraison (ripening determined when grapes change color), as opposed to 42-65 days which might be a more typical practice.” 

This allows for darker-colored wines that aren’t necessarily loaded with tannins – those mouth-puckering acids that excite collectors because they allow for aging but turn off most consumers who want something immediately approachable. 

Secondly, Peck bleeds off about 25-30 percent of the juice immediately after crushing. This allows for more color as the skins stay in contact with less juice. 

Finally, a short cold-soak of the grapes draws out the color before the tannins set. Afterward, the juice is pumped back over a cap of seeds, stems and skins.  The temperature rises until Peck gets the alcohol level he wants, then he lowers the temperature to limit tannin extraction. 

We know, it’s chemistry gobbledygook you don’t really care about. But the point is that a lot can be done in the vineyard and at the winery to achieve that supple texture and richness you like. For many winemakers, this is too much intervention and a process not intended for all grape varieties or all vintages. 

Try these delicious Monterey County pinot noirs and you’ll see what we mean and what Peck is trying to achieve.  J. Lohr makes some incredibly lush and rich chardonnays and a number of premium Bordeaux blends as well. 

  • J. Lohr Highlands Bench Pinot Noir 2014 ($35). Peck says this is more “new world” in style, which to us means there is more extracted and riper fruit. But there is a brambly character to this wine too. Lots of rich, extracted strawberry and black cherry flavors. 

  • J. Lohr Fog’s Reach Pinot Noir 2014 ($35). We like the earthy character of this wine. More refined in an “old world” style, it shows off an herbal character to match the copious black cherry fruit and a hint of anise and spice. Like’s its sibling, it’s quite dark. 

GOLDENEYE 

Duckhorn's Goldeneye pinot noirs are proving to be among the best Anderson Valley has to offer. They will cost you an arm and a leg, though – the standard pinot noir is $56 and it goes up to $120 for their remarkable Ten Degrees single-vineyard pinot noir.  

Texture identifies the six luxurious and rich pinot noirs. The Ten Degrees pinot noir comes from the best lots and barrels – a proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove. We loved the 2014 Split Rail Vineyard pinot noir ($82) for its complex, lush mouthfeel, boysenberry and cedar flavors.   

At $52, the Goldeneye Anderson Valley pinot noir will stand up to anything in this price range. It has varietal black cherry and cranberry flavors with earthy, leathery notes.  

Lots of roses to get you through the summer

(May 29, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

A couple of weeks ago we recommended our favorite French rosés. This week we turn to other parts of the world to complete our review of this year's exciting rosés. 

As the weather begins to warm, there isn't a better quaff than rosé. Not onlydoes the drink bring color to the table but it is a delicious aperitif.  Not everyone sees rosé as a serious wine to serve at the dinner table, but we've found it a nice compromise between red and white for foods that may be overwhelmed by traditional wine. Sushi, highly spiced grilled chicken and seasoned fish, for instance, are no challenge to rosé. 

If you can't find something you like below, we have even more rosés on our website, moreaboutwine.com. 

  • Sanford Rosé of Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills Estate 2015 ($23). A bit more expensive than many rosés, but this wine delivers the quality. Typical strawberry notes but accented with an intriguing orange aroma and flavors. Good acidity make this refreshing wine very food friendly.  
  • Gamble Family Vineyards Rosé 2015 ($22). Tom Gamble makes some of the best wines from small lots. His sauvignon blancs and complex red blends top $100 a bottle. But this rosé, while reasonably priced, shows off the same Gamble quality.  It's no surprise that this reasonably price entry is balanced, refreshing and balanced with strawberry and watermelon flavors.  

  • Stoller Dundee Hills Pinot Noir Rosé 2016 ($25). This stellar Oregon producer has been making rosé for more than a decade, so it's hardly an afterthought. Very aromatic with red grapefruit and citrus notes.  

  • Harmony Vineyards Judith Rosé Baltimore County 2016 ($16). How about a rosé from right here in Maryland? This gem is loaded with strawberry and cherry flavors, plus ample and palate-cleansing acidity. 

  • Michael Mondavi Family Estate Isabel Rosé 2016 ($20).  The beautiful bottle is enough reason to try this wine, but what’s inside is equally stunning. Made primarily from cabernet sauvignon grapes with some barbera and muscat canelli, this crisp rosé has red fruit flavors, a dose of spice and a luxurious finish.  

  • Barrymore by Carmel Road Rosé of Pinot Noir 2016 ($18). Peach and apricot flavors mix seamlessly with citrus to create a delicious, balanced rosé from Monterey County. Yep, Barrymore is Drew Barrymore's wine and it's delicious. 

  • Paraduxx Napa Valley Rosé 2016 ($30).  One of our favorites of this season, this fabulous rosé from Duckhorn is loaded with forward strawberry and cherry fruit but with a bit of peach and orange to make it interesting.  It has the depth and complexity you expect from Paraduxx wines.  

  • El Coto Rioja Rosado 2015 ($12). Spanish rosé producers depend on garnacha (grenache) and tempranillo for their unique rosés. This one from Rioja is simply delicious with cherry aromas and ripe red berry fruits and spice.  

  • Tenuta dell' Ammiraglia Alie Rosé 2016 ($18). Mostly syrah, this Tuscan blend ignores maceration to achieve pure and simple peach fruit flavors. 

  • Figuiere Magali Rosé Cotes de Provence 2016 ($18). A delightful melange of grenache, cinsault, syrah and cabernet sauvignon, this French rosé has classic and bright red berry fruit flavors. 

  • Marques de Riscal Rosado 2014 ($10). Made from tempranillo and garnacha grapes, this Spanish version has a generous floral nose, soft mouthfeel and copious red berry flavors. Great value that won't disappoint. 

  • Santa Cristina Cipresseto Rosato 2016 ($14). A lot of good wines come from this Antinori estate in Tuscany, so it's not surprising to taste a delightful rosé. Lots of sweet peach flavors. 

  • Cline Cellars Ancient Vines Rosé 2016 ($17). Made entirely from mourvedre grapes, this has fresh acidity and easy-drinking red grape and citrus flavors.  

  • Villa Maria Private Bin Hawke's Bay Rosé 2016 ($14). This dry New Zealand rosé is made primarily from merlot grapes grown on the east side of the island. Crisp and fresh, it broadcasts big strawberry flavors.  

  • Kim Crawford Hawke's Bay Rosé 2016 ($18). Also made from merlot grapes grown in the same region as the Villa Maria, this delightful quaff shows off red berry fruit and a hint of citrus. 

  • Sidebar Russian River Valley Rosé 2016 ($21). Made from syrah, this dry California rosé is darker and heavier on the palate with big strawberry and raspberry flavors and crisp acidity.   

  • La Crema Monterey Pinot Noir Rosé 2016 ($20). La Crema is late getting into the rosé game but it offers a decent debut with this pink pinot noir. Cherry, cranberry and a touch of watermelon highlight this quaffable and balanced rosé.  

  • J. Lohr Gesture Grenache Rosé 2016 ($18). Big strawberry and pink grapefruit flavors dominate this lush blend of mostly grenache but with a bit of counoise and mourvedre. 

  • Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rose 2016 ($12). A good value from South Africa, this delicious rosé has refreshing strawberry and watermelon flavors with clean acidity. 

  • Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Rosé 2016 ($17). New to the KJ portfolio, this rosé uses the brand’s formula of drawing grapes from several counties. Most of it is pinot noir with a little syrah and “other” thrown in. Fresh and vibrant with a touch of grapefruit to add to the strawberry flavors.  

  • Frescobaldi Alie 2016 ($15). Made from syrah and a bit of vermentino grapes, this Tuscan rosé has unsual character. Ripe and fruity with red fruit, melon and citrus flavors.   

  • Decoy Rosé 2016 ($20).  A unique blend of syrah and pinot noir, this rosé has elegant and fresh strawberry flavors with good depth.  

Make Memorial Day memorable with zinfandel         

(May 22, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR
In our houses, the grill can be going any time of the year. Snow? Give us a shovel. Rain? Give us an umbrella. But for most people, the starting gun to fire up the grill is Memorial Day.  With that now behind us, it’s time to plan ahead for those countless summer barbecues.

There is more to the grilling ritual than making smoke. First, there’s some serious thought that goes into selecting steak, burgers, ribs or fish. You can’t even start that discussion without a glass of wine. Then, there’s a serious discussion with your spouse about who to invite to a party. Really, do you want to start that without a glass of wine? Then there is a debate over what wines to pour that won’t cost more than a bag of charcoal. Better open another bottle as you peruse our list of the Top 12 red wines for a perfect summer barbecue.

Grilled or smoked foods – “barbecue” is technically smoked – is often accompanied by tomato-based sauces. Together with meat's fat-and-juicy nature, sauces are best matched with boisterously juicy red wines that are focused on upfront fruit. Fortunately, these don't have to be expensive, which is good news if you have a crowd to please. Zinfandel, zinfandel-blends, syrah and malbec are good choices because they satisfy all these elements.

Gary Sitton, director of winemaking for Ravenswood, attributes the success of the zinfandel-barbecue match to the grape variety’s “approachability, ripeness of the fruit profile and its acidity, which helps to balance fat.”

Zinfandel is also an all-American grape for an all-American holiday.

Ravenwood is one of the most historic zinfandel producers in (Sonoma County), thanks largely to its founder Joel Peterson. At one time Ravenswood claimed one out of four zinfandels sold in the United States. It's iconic $10 Vintner's Blend is largely credited with that success, and today it's still the brand's cash cow.

Here are our dozen suggested red wines to put next to this weekend's grill:

·         Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel Napa Valley 2014 ($18). We liked the layers of fruit in this classic old-vine zin. Vibrant cherry and jammy blackberry flavors with hints of clove and vanilla.

·         Predator Old Vines Zinfandel 2015 ($16). Made from Lodi vines ore than 50 years old, this complex zinfandel is a blockbuster. Deep and soft raspberry flavors with a dose of spice. 

·         Cigar Zinfandel 2015 ($20). Behind the creative label here is a broad-shouldered wine that struts generous aromas and juicy, dark berry flavors with a dash of mocha.  

·         XYZin Reserve Zinfandel 2013 ($30). Geyer Peak's successful XYZin rises to a new level with this juicy, jammy version. Good tannin with forward blackberry and raspberry flavors.  

·         Artezin Mendocino County Zinfandel 2015 ($16). Mendocino County produces some of California's best zinfandel because its warm days and cool nights provides balanced acidity. About 15 percent of wine is made of petite sirah grapes which give the wine a deeper color and more power. It starts with cherry, red currant and black pepper aromas and ends with forward, raspberry flavors with a good dose of clove.

·         Quivira Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2014 ($25). One of our favorite zinfandels year to year, the Quivira is one of many zinfandel stars in Dry Creek Valley. Dark fruit aromas range from plums to blackberries while the flavors are found, concentrated and lasting.

·         SAVED 2014 ($25). This blend is made mostly from malbec grapes but blended with syrah, merlot, grenache, zinfandel, petit verdot and souzao – quite a mouthful but nonetheless delicious. With an attractive label designed by tatoo artist Scott Campbell, it has masculine written all over it. Great with barbecued and smoked foods, it has ripe plum and black cherry notes with a good dose of cocoa and round, slightly sweet texture.

·         Columbia Crest Grand Estates Syrah Columbia Valley 2014 ($12). This very well made syrah is emblematic of Columbia Crests consistent performance producing high quality varietally correct wines at a bargain basement price. The wine opens with a mocha and berry nose with ripe fruit flavors and ending with a black pepper note. Decidedly syrah and very pleasing.

  • Burgo Viejo Rioja Crianza 2012 ($14). Kysela can be counted on to import some of the best values to the U.S. This simple crianza has soft and generous black fruit flavors, a floral nose and a good dose of vanilla. 
  • Rutherford Ranch Two Range Red Wine 2014 ($25). This delicious blend of petite sirah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah bursts on the palate with forwrad, juicy strawberry and raspberry flavors and a healthy dose of chocolate. 

·         Argento Malbec Mendoza Argenäna 2015 ($14). A traditionai style Argentinian malbec this is a very good example. Bright plum and cherry nose and flavors with a hint of cedar. Would pair well with most beef dishes.

  • Santa Cristina Rosso Toscana 2015 ($13). One of the best buys on the market today, this delicious, everyday wine is a blend of the native sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. Loads of ripe cherry fruit with tantalizing hints of mint and spice.

My Top 10 French roses

(May 17, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

At a recent wine tasting for his community association, Tom was offering a glass of rosé to arriving guests. If there is one rule we have learned about these events is you never begin to talk until anxious guests have a glass of wine in their hands. But this time the conversation started immediately when one attendee turned up his nose at the sight of a pink wine, saying, "It's too sweet." 

Alas, rosé  has struggled over the years to shed its image as sweet blush wine – "white zinfandel" as Sutter Home called the market debut of this vile disaster. But slowly wine enthusiasts have come to learn that real rosé, patterned after that made in southern France, is bone dry. And, it's delicious year-round. 

Led by adventurous millennials, sales of rosés have been steadily climbing in the last decade -- 62 percent is just the last year. Together, France and the U.S. consume half of the world's production of rosé. 

With the tide finally turning, more producers are getting into the game. Every spring we taste a lot of rosé  but never before have we seen so much of it on the market. Even wine giants like Kendall-Jackson are launching new rosé  brands. 

More doesn't mean better, of course. In fact, the definition of rosé  is blurring as more countries are using indigenous grape varieties to expand its definition beyond the classic French rosés made from grenache, syrah, cinsault and mourvedre.  Tempranillo, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sangiovese are not unusual and offer a style that is unique to their region.  

As much as we like that trend, our tasting of this year's 30-plus rosés show that quality and price aren't always equal. While producers from Provence make only rosé, other producers offer it as an after-thought. Quality and price are all over the board. 

Generally, we prefer French rosé  because it is delicate and balanced. California rosés tend to be fruit bombs with no attempt at delicacy. These wines are so versatile with food: chicken, salmon, crudites, fruit, pasta and burgers. And, their prices are very reasonable. 

If you really want to enhance your rosé  tasting experience, consider buying a pair of Riedel Vinum Extreme Provence Rosé  glass ($69 a pair) that is crafted exclusively for this special drink. The glasses are a thing of beauty and we found that they enhance those delicate rosé  flavors. 

Because of the volume of rosés we tasted and liked, we are reviewing only our top 10 French rosés this week. Upcoming will be a longer list of California, Spanish and Italian rosés. 

  • Chateau de Nages Vielles Vignes 2016 ($12). Made from old-vine syrah, grenache, cinsault and mourvedre, this vibrant rosé  from the Costieres de Nimes has a focused clementine, orange character and a dash of mineral. 

  • Caves d'Esclans Whispering Angel Cotes de Provence 2016 ($22). One of our favorites year to year, this refreshing rosé  from Provence delivers. Pale in color, the blend of grenache, rolle and cinsault provides a citrus, grapefruit character with a dash of wet stone. Under the direction of Sacha Lichine, this brand is growing at an extraordinary rate. 

  • M. Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Rosé 2016 ($15). Wow, this Rhone blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah is what makes French rosé  so great: excellent value, freshness, juicy and vibrant fruit flavors and strong acidity. 

  • Domaine Paul Mas Astela Pastel 2015 ($18). Using grenache, syrah, mourvedre, and cinsault grapes grown in the Languedoc, this interesting wine has more dimension than most. Cherry notes.   

  • M de Minuty 2016 ($19). Pale in color and bottled in a tall, slender glass, this light and refreshing rosé  from Cotes de Provence has orange peel, strawberry and peach flavors.   

  • Tournon Mathilda Rosé 2016 ($16). Made in a Provence style, this grenache rosé is a tribute to the daughter of the estate's owner, Michel Chapoutier. Balanced, bone dry and with raspberry and citrus flavors. 

  • Les Dauphins Cotes du Rhone Rosé 2016 ($14). Grenache, syrah and cinsault make up this eclectic and vibrant rosé from France. This blend of grapes is ideal for rosé. Beautiful pale pink color with cherry and strawberry flavors. 

  • E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Rosé 2016 ($15). More complex than your usual rosé, this one from the Rhone Valley uses grenache, cinsault and syrah from 25-year-old vines to create an explosion of layered flavors with a dash of mineral and spice. 

  • Mas Carlot Cuvee Tradition Costieres de Nimes 2016 ($14). We've bought at least a case of this wine every year and it never disappoints. Loaded with fresh and lively red fruit and hints of herbs, it excites the senses on sight. Traditionally, it's a blend of grenache, syrah and cinsault. 

  • Ferraton Pere & Fils Samorens Cotes du Rhone Rosé 2016 ($14). Round in the mouth and chock full of raspberry notes, this beguiling rosé  begs for a second glass. Nice mineral notes. 

Vermouth and Beaulieu Vineyards

(May 10, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

Mention vermouth and images of martinis and manhattans come to mind. But good vermouth is more than just a cocktail mix.  It can be delicious by itself. 

Mass-market brands such as Martini & Rossi, Cinzano and Noilly Prat dominate sales, but the craft cocktail movement led by creative and inventive men and women bartenders are renewing life in this centuries-old beverage that began as a rejuvenating tonic to relieve aches and pains. Exciting and little known vermouth brands have re-emerged.   

Vermouth is a fortified wine commonly made from a white wine or grape must that has been fortified with neutral grape brandy. Herbs and spices are steeped in the liquid and sugar is added – less for white vermouths. Caramel color is added to the red vermouth.  

Although amaro is a frequent companion to spirits and vermouth in modern craft cocktails, they are not to be confused with vermouth. Amari are classified as herbal liqueurs and originally were used as digestifs at the end of meals. In addition, most vermouth is 16-18 percent alcohol while amari is 16-50 percent alcohol. It is also sweeter. 

Italy and France dominate vermouth production – Turin in the Italian Piedmont and Chambery in the French Savoy region. Their interest in the U.S. is mostly for cocktails, but Europeans often sip chilled vermouth before meals. 

We recently gathered an assortment of vermouths to compare and contrast the myriad of styles. Most mass-market vermouth is modestly priced at $10-20 a liter. However, some of the craft versions can cost up to $40 a liter. These versions offer intense, complex tasting experiences. 

One lesson we learned was that vermouths fall into two distinct classes: those best served blended in cocktails and those best enjoyed by themselves or with a splash of soda. 

Our tasting was limited in scope, but it’s a beginning for further study of this often-forgotten beverage. Here are our impressions: 

  • Carpano Bianco Vermouth Italy ($25/liter). Very deep floral notes, a bit sweet with distinctive clove notes. A bit too assertive for martinis but a delight served chilled or on the rocks. 

  • Carpano Dry Vermouth Italy ($25/liter). Citrus notes dominate this well-made vermouth with orange notes. Herbal notes and a bittering agent – maybe quinine? – add a lot of interesting and complex flavors. A small dash in a martini or just by itself will work. 

  • La Quintinye Royal Blanc Vermouth Charente France ($24/750ml). Crafted from Pineau des Charentes and 18 botanicals. Pineau des Charentes is a fortified wine made from grape must and cognac in the Charente region immediately east of the Right Bank of Bordeaux. This is a citrus-dominated vermouth with orange, lemon and lime notes in a slightly bitter blend.  

  • Dolin Vermouth de Chamber Rouge France ($16/750ml).  This red vermouth is a go-to for rye manhattans. A bit of black pepper and hints of barbecue sauce dominate. Not overly sweet. 

  • Carpano Punt E Mes Red Vermouth Italy ($26/750ml). Sweet cherry cola notes with a pronounced bitter finish. Recommended to drink by itself or with club soda. Also an ideal ingredient in negronis. 

  • Mancino Vermouth Rosso Amaranto Italy ($40/750ml). A bit pricy but worth the tariff. Made from trebbiano grapes and infused with 38 botanicals, this versatile vermouth works in manhattans and negronis. It also can serve as a dessert wine to accompany strawberry or rhubarb fare. Pleasantly bitter with rhubarb and vanilla notes, it was one of our favorites. 

BEAULIEU VINEYARDS  

Ever since we’ve been tasting wine, we have been fans of Beaulieu Vineyards, one of the few Napa Valley producers known more by its initials than its name. We were first smitten by its storied winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, who made the Georges de Latour cabernet sauvignon California's first cult wine with the 1936 vintage. The Russian émigré retired from BV in 1973 but returned in 1991 as a consultant. BV named its "Maestro" wine after him.  

BV has some of the best vineyards in Napa Valley – most notably Ranches No. 1 and No. 2 -- that were originally planted by Georges de Latour, BV's founder, in the early 1900s. Grapes from these vineyards go into BV's flagship wine that bears its founder's name. 

We remember buying BV’s Rutherford cabernet sauvignon for $14 a bottle; today it’s price is $44 but it's a steal compared to the lofty price of the Georges de Latour cabernet sauvignon. Tasting this wine recently reminded us of the quality we remember from this producer.  The 2014 Rutherford cab had incredible spice and blackberry notes with a touch of spice. Very rich in texture, a hallmark of this historic property. 

Tapestry – a Bordeaux-like blend created in 1990 – is $65 but it easily ranks alongside other Napa reserve wines of the same price. Bold, assertive and complex, it manages to be approachable on release. 

These wines, however pricey, are symbolic of the quality that comes from producers with good vineyards. The history, the vineyards and the character of BV make it one of Napa Valley's remaining legends.  

 

Celebrate Earth Day with organic wines

(April 2

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

Bob Blue and Jeff Cichocki

Bob Blue and Jeff Cichocki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hooray for the pioneers. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hungarian wines much improved

(April 6, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

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

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

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

Following are our recommended wines: 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chateau Lassegue stands up to the competition

(March 6, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

Pierre Seillan of Chateau Lassegue

Pierre Seillan of Chateau Lassegue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaia Gaja continuing her father's legacy

(March 1, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

Gaia Gaja  

Gaia Gaja

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donelan focused on Rhone varietals

(February 13, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

Cushing Donelan

Cushing Donelan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I okay to drive?

(January 17, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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