Tom's blog

Patz & Hall on a tear


Patz & Hall, founded in 1988, and recently purchased by Ste Michelle Wine Estates is renowned for their focus on pinot noir and chardonnay from mostly small-lot and single vineyard sites. The winery owns no vineyards or winemaking facilities but maintains long-term grape growing contracts with some of California’s most prestigious vineyard owners.  

We have tasted Patz & Hall wines frequently over the past 10 years and are always impressed with the different expressions of pinot noir and chardonnay from sites sometimes only miles apart. 

We recently tasted several 2015 releases and as usual found several that we highly recommend. 

  •  Patz & Hall Chardonnay Russian River Valley Dutton Ranch 2015 ($38). Made from the prestigious Dutton Ranch grapes, some of which were planted almost 50 years ago. The wine presents delicious ripe pear and citrus notes especially tangerine. Just a bare hint of oak perfectly frames this elegant chardonnay. 

  • Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Jenkins Ranch 2015 ($60). Although we find most new releases from Patz & Hall ready to drink, this pinot noir could use 2-4 years to fully blossom. Black cherry fruit as well as some mocha and cola notes are present as well as some elegant oak notes. Be patient. 

  • Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Gap’s Crown Vineyard 2015 ($70). While some pinot noir is better suited to lighter style foods like salmon, tuna or chicken, this bold spicy pinot noir can go toe to toe with pretty much any red meat. Ripe cherry and cola notes dominate this medium to full-bodied pinot noir. 

Remembering the BV of old

One of my fondest memories from my early years of writing about wine is Beaulieu Vineyards. A friend was then the education director for Heublien, which at the time owned BV. He would often share many of the wines from the vast portfolio and I got a good understanding of this top-drawer Napa Valley producer.

The wine I remember the most was the BV Rutherford, which then cost around $14, if memory serves me correct.  Sourced from BV's prized Rutherford vineyard, it always exceeded its price in quality. I bought it by the case. 

BV 2014 Napa Valley Cab Sauvignon Beauty Shot Close Up.jpg

I was happy to again taste the Rutherford with the 2014 vintage. The price is now $33 a bottle but it continues to surpass its price in quality. I consider it to be a good value for collectors. It still has layers and layers of Napa Valley fruit, ranging from plums to cherries with hints of "Rutherford dust," cedar, and allspice.

I also tasted the 2013 BV Reserve Tapestry ($65), a Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, malbec and cabernet franc. This wine is huge and in need of aging but loaded with plum, black cherry and blackberry flavors.

Andre Tchelistcheff, the famous Russian emigre first to make reserve wines in Napa Valley, was BV's winemaker from 1938 to the mid-70s. He set the quality tone for these wines, especially the reserve Georges de Latour, and even in death he serves as a mentor. 

BV has undergone a number of ownership changes over the last couple of decades and for awhile it seemed to have lost its focus and its leadership position in the Napa Valley lineup. However, these wines seem to recapture the BV of old.

Thanks a lot, Irma

I'm sorry that I haven't posted in more than a week. My business was rudely interrupted by Hurricane Irma, which blew through my hometown of Naples and shut down my internet service for 9 days. 

The absence of access to the outside world gave me plenty of time to think, especially about my wine cellar that was perilously close to a total collapse. With the hurricane's eye bearing down on Naples, I sacrificed a 1986 Mouton-Rothschild on the eve of the storm because frankly I wasn't sure I'd ever see my wine again. It was given to me by my wife on Valentine's Day, 1988, and was symbolic of a rite we shared every Valentine's Day -- I made a romantic dinner and she bought me a nice bottle of wine. It cost $80 then; it was worth $900 today. And, it scored 100 by Robert Parker and James Suckling. It was damn good.

 My wife, mother-in-law and I were forced into a shelter when the threat of a storm surge was too ominous to safely ignore. When forecasters predicted a 10 foot surge, we expected to return to our house by boat. I paid last respects to my wine collection and left.

The surge didn't happen and I found minor damage to the house when we returned. Fortunately, the wine cellar was just as I had left it -- best bottles at the top and sacrificial bottles at the bottom. Unfortunately, we were without power and no power meant rising temperatures in the cellar. My fight wasn't over.

The well-sealed cellar held its temperature for a couple of days and only slowly declined. But by the fourth day, the temperature was 79 degrees. I was beginning to imagine corks easing their way out of the bottlenecks.

Two buddies from Maryland drove straight through with a generator and gear to hot wire my cellar to the electric panel -- the inside unit could be plugged into a generator but the outside unit was hot wired. Just as they rolled up, the power returned and my collection was saved.

Prior to the storm, I was studying generators and had selected one to install in February when my electrician buddy would be visiting for a week. So, my intentions were good --just not well timed. 

Those of you with collections should take heed of this advice: don't delay. Generators are hard to get at short notice and they are important even if you don't live in a hurricane-prone state. Power can be interrupted by snowstorms, mud slides, tornadoes, high wind or just some fruitcake cutting a cable. My generator will power the cellar, a few lights, the refrigerator, TV and a bit more. It cost me $1,100.

I shudder when I think of the wines I could have lost. There is the financial loss (uninsured), but equally important the emotional loss. Each of these bottles have made several journeys with me and have stories behind them. They are my children.

Drinking a priority wine


If you had a day to drink up your wine cellar, what wine would you start with? It was more than a fun, cerebral exercise for me.  With Hurricane Irma bearing down on Florida, I was faced with what to do with my 500-plus bottle cellar. Both the lack of AC and the threat of wind damage presented a dilemma: stay or flee.

In the end, I have decided to stay with my cellar -- we'll go down or survive, but happily together. But just the thought of losing my cellar got me to prioritize my drinking order. I even assembled three cases to tote in the car: some Gruard-Larose, Troplong-Mondot, Sociando-Mallet and odd bottles of Mouton-Rothschild and Grange.

My best bottle was a 1986 Mouton-Rothschild that my wife gave to me on Valentine's Day in 1988. It cost her $80 then; it's worth nearly $900 today. What better time to open it? It was sublime - everything I imagined it would be. I don't think I've ever tasted a better wine: intense floral nose with hints of lead pencil and cedar; smooth dark fruit, cassis flavors with fine and almost untraceable tannins.

Drinking such wine sets a lofty benchmark for Bordeaux for me. Dense, so balanced, so long in the finish, so perfect. It was superbly delicious and I'm glad I opened it. 



Why do people collect all those corks?

If you are like most people, you're reluctant to throw away your corks. You have no idea what to do with the corks, but you just can't throw them away. So they go into a basket or a big jar that remarkably becomes a room decoration. You probably save hotel shampoo containers too and somewhere in the house is a bag of restaurant matches. Seek help.


I was recently at a rented cabin in Washington and there in the corner next to the fireplace was a basket of corks contributed by the various renters who occupied the place over the years. By the names on the corks, the renters drank cheaply. I told the landlord I had never seen a collection of this size. He emailed me that a youngster, bored by the rain, once counted them -- 1,435 and still amassing.

In the kitchen drawers were a couple of cork trivets -- the landlord's gallant effort to put the corks to use. He could have built hundreds of these and made a mint at the local flea market.


I neighbor asked me to collect corks for her, then presented me with a gift: a house built with my corks and some crafty accessories. It was probably the most unique use of corks.

I did like a friend's wall hanging, a vertical display around a photo of him and his wife. Each cork came from a bottle they shared. It's enough to move a person to tears.


I had a party last night and found 15 corks sitting around this morning. It grieved me, but I threw them away. Sometimes a trashed cork is a piece of art.

The wine workout. Really?

I'm not sure this video inspires a healthly lifestyle, but it's funny. I mean, the woman is obviously fit -- that's good -- but she's guzzling from a bottle -- that's bad. Depending on how many reps she does, she could have a problem with balance. And that's really bad.

Looking and finding something unique

I'm always walking the aisle looking for a different wine -- a wine that comes from an often-forgotten region, like Chinon or Alsace,  or a wine that uses ancient grape varieties like those from Campania and Sicily. Sometimes I'm rewarded; other times I understand why these regions and grapes are forgotten. Wine, like life, is a box of chocolates.

Over the years I occasionally grabbed a bottle of Beaumes-de-Venise during these excursions and I've always been rewarded. And, I was again with the 2015 Domaine de Durban Beaumes-de-Venise, a wine imported to the U.S. by Kermit Lynch.

This southern Rhone region in the department of Vaucluse has an interesting history. It is known more for its sweet fortified wine, Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise. In fact, it was the fortified wine that was first to earn the AOC status.  It too is an excellent dessert wine, but I really like the unfortified wine made from grenache, syrah and mourvedre.

For years the rouge was overshadowed by the luxurious muscat. It wasn't until 2005 that the rouge (and the muscat) were declared a cru -- the highest honor bestowed on wines in southern Rhone. That slow progress means the wines are relatively inexpensive -- around $20 for the Durban. Values like this are hard to come by in France.

The mix of classic Rhone grapes gives the Beaumes-de-Venise a lot of red fruit flavors and hints of lavender, pepper and dried spices. It's not meant for long-term aging.

 I loved this wine. At this price I can even buy a few more bottles. 

Look first at the importer's name

I was perusing the selection of wines at a local merchant in my hometown of Naples, FL, and noticed that many -- if not all -- of the wines were imported by Kermit Lynch. Bleu Provence is actually a restaurant that has a license to sell its wines in an adjoining retail store. And, according to an employee, is Kermit Lynch's top customer.

Knowing Kermit Lynch's vast portfolio, I was like a kid in a candy store.

Kermit-Lynch is one of the best importers of French wine, so it wasn't a surprise that I spent a long time in this store examining the labels of wines I hadn't tried before. I walked out with several bottles, including an intriguing blend of malbec (a largely abandoned grape in France), syrah and cabernet franc. From the Languedo-Roussillon region of southern France, the La Grange de Quatre Cuvee Garsinde was simply delicous. At $20, it shows that you can get bargains in France that often outperform what you can find in California for the same price. This vineyard also makes a white blend that came to our attention during a recent dinner there. 

Then there was the Domaine la Casenove La Garrigue Sous from another terrific importer: European Cellars. A blend of carignane, grenache and syrah, it too had those quaffable flavors you expect from these grape varieties grown in southern France.

Two great Languedoc wines from two great importers.  Pay attention to the importers on the label and you won't go wrong.


Can wine be made in a lab?

I can't imagine anything more disgusting than drinking a laboratory-concocted wine from a test tube. That's what a San Francisco start-up has in mind -- wine made in a lab without any grapes.

I can't even get past the name -- Ava Winery -- not to mention what it is attempting to do with a natural product. The project allegedly began when Mardonn Chua and Alec Lee were visiting a California winery and saw a bottle of the Chateau Montelena that beat its French counterparts at the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting. Unable to ever taste such an iconic wine, the mad chemists wondered if they could create a synthetic wine that would match the cabernet sauvignon's flavors. And, off they went to their laboratories.

The basic process of turning sugar into alcohol by introducing yeast can be duplicated by simply adding alcohol. It cuts to the chase. But trying to mimic the 1,000 esters that give wine its flavor is another matter. Chua told various news outlets that he can add, say, ethyl hexanoate for the pineapple-like aroma and have wine in 15 minutes and a far cheaper price.

I can't wait.

Their first product wasn't Chateau Montelena, by the way. It was suppose to be chardonnay, but it tasted so bad they switched to Moscato d'Asti. Never mind that the world is hardly waiting in line for a sweet sparkling wine from Italy, but a synthetic one? Well, I guess I relax that they have chosen a crappy wine to imitate.

They say the next step is to produce an imitation of Dom Perignon for $50. Yeah, right.

Wine critics who dared to put the moscato into their bodies were not impressed, from what I read. One talked about the odor that reminded them of an inflatable pool shark. Others said the concoction tasted like -- now here comes the surprise -- chemicals.

I can't imagine the field day federal regulators will have with putting "wine" on this label, not to mention analyzing the chemicals fit for human consumption.

I guess inventing a product that will turn the world upside down and make a lot of money is an all-American goal, but this one makes no sense. When consumers are demanding fewer chemicals in everything from bread to wine, who would want to buy a fake, all-chemical wine -- even if it was good?


Duckhorn makes a pinot noir move

Duckhorn has announced the acquisition of Calera, an iconic pinot noir label founded by Josh Jensen in 1975. The addition to Duckhorn's vast portfolio -- Duckhorn, Goldeneye, Parduxx, Migration, Decoy and Canvasback -- Calera provides another strong pinot noir with iconic status. 

I have tasted Calera's exquisite pinot noir and chardonnay for decades and it never failed to impress me. Often deceivingly light in color, it has embraced a Burgundian philosophy. 

"Like our own founders, Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, Josh is a visionary and pioneer who has spent more than four decades shaping the modern American palate for luxury wines. What he has achieved at Calera has been nothing short of remarkable,” said Alex Ryan, president and CEO of DWC in a press release.

“Calera is one of the world’s great wineries, and we will ensure that Josh’s legacy of quality and excellence will continue to flourish for decades to come. For us, this is a fantastic opportunity to establish a presence on the Central Coast with one of the region’s most iconic wineries.”

The sale includes the winery and 85 acres of vineyards in the Mt. Harlan AVA.

Duckhorn does not plan any immediate changes in personnel. Jensen will remain involved and has earned a seat on DWC's board of directors. At 73, he was undoubtedly looking to slow down. He deserves it.




Alsace: neglected, forgotten, ignored

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

Literally, not even the French from Burgundy, Bordeaux and Provence understand Alsatians. Their Alemannian dialect is still spoken in Germany, but no where else in France. When the Roman empire fell, the region became part of Germany and wasn't conquered by the French until 1639. The tug-of-war over this region has left Alsace with the same acceptance as a litter's runt. Yet to a visitor Alsace is one of France's most beautiful yet humble regions.

One would think that its residents would suffer an inferiority complex with such history. But that's hardly the case. They are very proud of their wines, even if few others want to drink them.

I thought about Alsace's unfortunate predicament while recently tasting through 10 of its wines. It is so rare to have the opportunity. Even the evening's host -- Jacques Cariot, owner of Bleu Provence in Naples, FL -- was shocked to see a full house. (It was August and the bored were willing to sacrifice "Wheel of Fortune" for one night).

But the experience proved to be worth the sacrifice if just for the reminder that there is more to wine than chardonnay.

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

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

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

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

My tasting notes from some of the evening's wines can be found on my following "recommendations" page.


Don't let wine outlast you

In the past decade or so I've been asked to evaluate a number of cellars that were passed down to heirs after their collectors died. In most cases, the collections were no more than 50 bottles or so. Each time I took time to reflect on the thoughts of the collectors who, for whatever reason, had squirreled away a few bottles they were convinced would benefit from age. Alas, in most cases, they were wrong. Perhaps they were simply over-confident, misguided or perhaps the wine just reminded them of fond times in wine country. 

Yes, I have found Chateau Yquem, vintage port and even first-growth  Bordeaux. But in most cases I found Virginia cabernet or some second-rate California cabernet that caught the collector's fancy in a visit to the property. In some cases, I could imagine that a slick salesman told them the $20 Bordeaux was as good as a top growth.

Most likely they were assured the $75 bottle of highly allocated wine would last decades. It's sad really because the expectations of the heirs is high; so is the disappointment once the truth is out.  Once, sadly, I even found an incredible 50-year-old port that had been opened for several weeks. They thought, wrongly, that port would do well long after it was exposed to air.

I muse all of this as I popped a few corks tonight over a steak dinner. I remember the salesman who assured me i was making an excellent buy when I bought a box of 2003 Chateau du Marquis from St. Julien. Sadly, it never improved after I first tasted it in 2005. Then, there was the expensive 2007 Dry Creek Vineyard Meritage, a nice Bordeaux blend that was still tight and alive. I never thought it would last this long, but, voila, it did. So, who really knows?

The point of all of this rant? Don't get caught up in the moment. Visits to wineries are sucker punches when it comes to buying wine. You're having a good time and, as you do, the wine tastes remarkably better than it is. You feel confident and you lose your common sense as the alcohol courses through your body. Pretty soon you have a case of wine in your cellar that outlives you, and your heirs wonder what you were thinking. 

Best of luck, sucker. 

Bridging wine and industry?

I love how Washington state wine producers embrace wine tasting. No exquisite tasting rooms with gobs of t-shirts, trivets and key chains. Instead, many of them have made an industrial complex in Woodinville their home. Here, their staffs -- most part-time wine enthusiasts or family members -- trot out sandwich boards every morning to help guide visitors to their location. Those who want a better neighborhood squeeze themselves between shops in strip centers. Walk into any of them and you get a feeling of casual, no-nonsense education.

Take for instance, Efeste. When we sat down to start a tasting, who shows up but owner Daniel Ferrelli. No introductions, no pretenses, let's just you and me taste the wine. Daniel grew up in a family of Italian winemakers who typical of Italians made the stuff for personal consumption. But he's no winemaker. With only a handful of harvests behind him, he has scored an average of 90 for all of his wines. A recent syrah was rated in the Top 50 of the year by Wine Spectator. Yet, here he is sharing his story with walk-ins and in an inglorious tasting room.

This is what we like about Washington winemakers. Not everyone has the grand tasting room of Chateau Ste. Michelle.

If you can find it, the 2013 Efeste Jolie Bouche syrah is ridiculously delicious with rich, hedonistic red fruit flavors, a dash of chocolate and pepper. It gets fruit from the Red Mountain in Yakima Valley.

Washington's best is pretty damn good

There was a time -- decades ago -- when Washington state's wines were poorly represented. Those that were broadly distributed weren't that good either. Fast forward today: they are as good as anything made in Napa Valley.

Like any region, Washington's Columbia Valley slowly prospered as pioneering winemakers began to understand the soil and climate. Today the wine giant Chateau Ste. Michelle dominates the market -- and makes outstanding, well-priced wines -- but hundreds of small, craft wineries have found a niche.

I was in Woodinville yesterday and astounded by the number of tasting rooms that beckon to tourists and locals who can hop from one to the other by foot. Woodinville is a quaint slice of Washington life with tony restaurants and shops. It should be a must-stop for you.

Yesterday's highlight was Long Shadows, a group of wines made under one general winemaker but with the guidance of well-known winemakers, including Randy Dunn (Dunn Wines), Michel Rolland (renown French wine consultant), John Duval (Penfold's Grange), Philippe Melka (Napa's Quintessa) and Gilles Nicault (France and Washington's Woodward Canyon). Each of these prominent winemakers crafts one of a handful extraordinary wines in the Long Shadows red wine portfolio.

Overseeing all of this is Allen Shoup, who was the CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle during its growth years. 

The ones I was able to taste were full-bodied, ready for the cellar, and complex. They include the 2014 Feather Cabernet Sauvignon (Dunn), 2014 Pedestal Merlot (Rolland), 2014 Pirouette blend of bordeaux grapes (Milka), 2014 Chester-Kidder cab/syrah blend (Nicault) and 2014 Sequel syrah (Duval).

This is a very interesting concept.

Refrigerated shipping changed the wine industry

There was a recent report that a cache of madeira was recently discovered during a archeological dig around an old New Jersey museum's wine cellar. The three cases unearthed at the Liberty Hall Museum in Union, N.J., was still in drinkable condition.

The discovery got me to thinking about the evolution of wine imports to the United States and how far we've come since President Jefferson struggled to get Burgundy to Monticello.

Madeira, produced on the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira, was one of a handful of wines that traveled well in an age of unrefrigerated containers. But it wasn't the only one. Port, for instance, traveled well because it was intentionally refortified with brandy to make it last longer. The colonies were happy to have these wines.

Even champagne made the trip, but only after the British invented a stronger bottle to keep it from exploding.

The explosion of wine choices in the United States didn't happen until transportation improved from wine growing regions in Europe. Even in my lifetime, there were but a handful of wines on the shelves during the 1950s and 1960s. 

Wine doesn't do well in heat, so temperature control was key to opening the door to thousands of producers eager to sell wines to North Americans. So, instead of sweet madeira and port, consumers finally had regular, still wine to buy. Thank heavens.


Migration shows the importance of terroir

Duckhorn produces a series of extraordinary chardonnays under its Migration label. These wines – all unique to their Napa Valley appellations – demonstrate the significance of terroir in crafting single-vineyard chardonnays.  

Frankly, this is a refreshing demonstration in light of a general trend toward generic wine that crosses regions.  Chardonnay, in particular, seems to fall victim to winemakers who blend grapes from various regions and thus strip the wine of traits unique to a vineyard. For instance, Kendall-Jackson makes good, balanced wine but often blends grapes from several appellations. 

Said Migration winemaker Dana Epperson in a press release, "Every vineyard we work with was selected because it yields distinctive and exciting wines. While there is a stylistic continuity  that runs through them all, each vineyard-designate has a purpose in our portfolio, and a personality of its own." 

We tasted five Migration chardonnays side-by-side and were struck by their differences. For instance, the Running Creek chardonnay from the Russian River Valley was tightly wound, laser focused and fresh while the Dierberg Vineyard chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley was broad on the palate, lush and ripe. 

Migration also has chardonnays from a Bien Nacio Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley and the Charles Heitz Vineyard in Sonoma  Coast. 

Those of you who have given up on chardonnay need to taste these wines and appreciate what good can be done in the right hands. 

Yes, you like those wine descriptions

I was recently intrigued by a report from the University of Adelaide that shows consumers are motivated to buy a wine based on their emotions after reading a critic's description.  The consumer study showed that a buyer's decision on what to buy and how much to pay is greatly influenced by how they feel after reading a label or a critic's review.  

I guess it's no different than any other kind of marketing. You likely would buy a wine that is said to be "like walking through a field of lilacs" over a wine that compared the experience to walking through a field of cow shit, right?

I often struggle to come up with apt descriptions and resort to standbys that name the fruit flavor or an herb that is integral to the aromas. But I've read some marketing crap that goes on and on about "liquid Viagra" or "wine that makes you want to cozy up to a fire." Worse, there are common descriptions that a consumer in his right mind would want to avoid: cat pee (sauvignon blanc), diesel fuel (riesling), barnyard (burgundy).

it's impressive that even some tasters can distinguish between white and black pepper or fresh sage versus dried sage, anise versus licorice, milk chocolate versus dark chocolate. Does it really matter? Apparently, it does. The 126 tasters surveyed after a blind tasting showed a willingness to buy a wine that had effusive praise on its back label. 

I've often condemned labels for lacking basic information, such as grape varieties used in a blend. Instead, you get a vapid and contrived marketing description that is more ad than information. But, stupid me. It's the ad that sells the wine.


Zinfandel's ups and downs

I was talking to Gary Sitton the other day. He's the lucky guy in transition to fill the shoes of Joel Peterson, founder and retiring winemaker of Ravenswood. The subject was on zinfandel's rise and fall from power, a point Sitton agreed is part of zinfandel's history.

There was once a time not that long ago when the all-American grape variety had a cult following for producers like Ridge, Raffenelli, Edmeades, and Ravenswood. But the confusion created by white zinfandel and the increase in competition from other grapes took the luster off red zinfandel. People began to shift to pinot noir and meritage blends.  In fact, zinfandel became the foundation for many cheap blends. The grape can be high-yielding in places like Lodi, so a producer can make a pretty cheap, generic red wine by using zinfandel as his base.

Director of Winemaking Gary Sitton with outgoing winemaker and founder Joel Peterson.

Director of Winemaking Gary Sitton with outgoing winemaker and founder Joel Peterson.

Sitton doesn't think that these blends will undermine the efforts of craft zinfandel users, but clearly the zin industry needs to retrieve its giddy-up. The answer may lay in the single-vineyard zins that show more character.

I'm among those who have had a falling out with zinfandel. I once enjoyed its heady, boisterous character but over time found too many of them overripe and raisiny.  However, I recently tried some of Ravenswood's single-vineyard zins and those from Quivira, Ridge and Raffenelli.  Good stuff.

Ravenswood's iconic Vintner's Blend was once a great wine, but now in the hands of new owner, Constellation Brands, it has become cheap plonk. Sitton says production was once 500,000 cases! No cult following there.

"We are at the crossroads as Ravenswood started out as a high-end, cult status brand," Sitton says. "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." 

With the grilling season upon us, zinfandel has relevance. Besides being the patriotic grape for Memorial Day and July 4th, its jammy, fruit-forward character is a great match to hamburgers, ribs, pulled pork and other grilled or smoked meats.


Phinney's introspective moment

Dave Phinney, a richer man

Dave Phinney, a richer man

In a recent video conference call, wine genius Dave Phinney answered a barrage of questions from wine journalists about his new line of wines, Locations, that blended vintages and grape varieties across appellations (see my column on another page). Late in the conversation, an inane question was thrown at him: "What was your proudest moment?" 

Phinney, a relatively shy winemaker but one who is honest and straightforward, paused. He reached back into his early winemaking career and said he refused to put "winemaker" on his business card until he was making his own wine. The unflappable Phinney became emotional and had to stop for a moment. 

"It was when I put 'winemaker' on my business cards," he finally answered, wiping away a tear.

Who couldn't appreciate his moment? He slaved away as a cellar rat for other California producers before hitting it big. He said he decided that if he was going to work that hard, he sure as hell was going to make better money. And so he did. First there was The Prisoner -- sold to Quintessa -- and then Orin Swift wines -- sold to E&J Gallo.

By the way, he joked about his only regret -- selling the The Prisoner brand to Agustin Huneeus. He reportedly sold the brand for $40 million. But in six years Huneeus sold it to Constellation for $285 million. It is unknown how much Phinney got from Gallo for Orin Swift, but I bet he didn't regret the deal this time.


Phinney strikes again

In the next several months -- if you haven't already -- you'll be reading a lot about David Phinney's relatively new wine project. Typical of the genius-without-walls wine producer who launched Orin Swift in 1998, his new project doesn't come without controversy.

Called "Locations," the series of 12 world wines blends grapes from different regions and vintages with the goal of creating wines that over-delivers in flavor and enjoyment. Phinney was inspired in part while waiting for a taxi by the bumper stickers denoting a country -- "F" for France in an oval white sticker. That image now graces these labels: "F" for wines from French vineyards, "E" for wines from Espana, or Spain, and "I" for wine made from Italian grapes -- three wines I tasted during a video conference call with Phinney and other wine journalists.

His portfolio includes three blends from the U.S. -- Oregon, California, Arizona, Washington and Texas (of all places).

Phinney spent years traveling around Europe looking for the right grapes, some of which were destined to be sold as bulk wine in regions where grape production outstrips demand. "E", for instance, blends grapes from Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

These wines are unquestionably tasty with ripe, extracted fruit. And, most consumers won't care that they break conventions. However, I'm struggling with accepting them beyond what they are: delicious wines that could come from anywhere.

I like tasting mint in my Rutherford cabernet and a special nuttiness in the chardonnay from Meursault. These wines mask the unique flavors that come from the terroir. You have a generic blend that defies the unique character that an appellation has taken years to define. Are these wines disrespectful of terroir?

"Yes, we are completely disrespecting terroir," Phinney admitted in a video conferencing call with wine journalists.

He said he never understood the significance of terroir until he spent time in Maury, a unique region in France's Roussillon area. After seeing the soil and tasting the wine, he saw the connection of terroir to a wine's character. But to him terroir was not an inviolable convention.

The broad blending practice certainly isn't new -- Champagne producers have been blending grapes from many appellations and vintages for centuries.