Monday, April 11, 2016

Send in the Clones (of Pinot)

By John Engstrom

A “clone” refers to a variation of a variety of wine grape that is selected for specific qualities, such as size of fruit, disease resistance, fruit color or aroma, maturation rate, or other characteristic. 

Clones are not “crosses” or “hybrids” or made in some laboratory. They are naturally occurring variations that are propagated through cuttings. 

Virtually all grape varieties have clones though few are well known. The “Brunello” clone of Sangiovese from the Montalcino region of Italy is more full bodied than its Chianti counterpart. The “Primativo” clone of Zinfandel ripens earlier than the traditional planting.
However, other than a handful such as these, most wine grape variety clones are not discussed at all. If you go into a winery that specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon, or Syrah there will be little discussion of clonal selection. 

But if you go into a winery that specialize in Pinot Noir, and you’ll be regaled with Dijon 114, 115. 667 and 777, plus Pommard 5, Swan, Wadenswil and Martini. 

Why all the clones? Because Pinot Noir mutates, a lot. Pinot Noir has mutated into Pinot Meunier, Pinot Gris/Grigio, and Pinot Blanc. Pinot Noir clones are so plentiful that they had to start numbering them to keep them straight.

The attributes of some of the most popular Pinot clones are:

·        Martini – A long history in California, doing well in Anderson Valley, less well further south. Late ripening, and known for good tannin, and good acidity, but rather dull flavors.

·        Dijon 113 – High yielding and early ripening. Known for elegant aromatics, but rather thin flavors.

·        Dijon 114 – Can be highly variable from year to year. At its best, it produces a very floral, fruit driven, spicy wine.

·        Dijon 115 – The most widely planted of the Dijon clones. Aromas of cherries, leather and roses. Noted for its abundance of fruit flavors. Consistent in all locations. Considered the best overall Dijon clone until the arrival of 943.

·        Dijon 667 – In cool climates it produces a wine known for its dark cherry, pomegranate and cranberry, and aromas of nutmeg and baking spices. However, in warmer climes, the flavors are hard tending towards green apple.

·        Dijon 777 – Thick skin provides intense color and more tannins than other clones, but if not managed properly can lead to inelegant, clumsy wines.

·        Dijon 943 – A relative newcomer (hence the higher number) but it shows great promise as a “stand alone clone”. Small berries in small clusters, yielding dark juice, soft tannins, and aromas that have been described as shouting PINOT. The only “knock” on this clone is that the resultant wine may lack backbone.

·        Pommard 4 – Late ripening, and if managed properly, produces a wine with spicy aromas and velvety textures.

·        Pommard 5 – Small berries in tight clusters resulting firm tannins, deep color, and dark plummy flavors.

·        Swan – First brought to the U.S. by Joseph Swan, it is rumored to have come from Romanee Conti. The resultant wine is described as bright and rich, but lacking in color.

·        Wadenswil 2A – Excellent resistance to mildew and rot, means that it comes through in wet years where others don’t. Lends an elegance to blends.

Given the various clones of Pinot Noir listed (and many more that are not), a Pinot Noir producer could mix and match, depending on the vineyard’s location, put together a winning vineyard. No wonder Pinot Noir has been improving in California and Oregon.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Tactical tracker forced into tactical retreat

Sometimes serious injuries come in the strangest places.

While out running in early November, I was spreading like crazy to make a green light, and the car pulled into a driveway right in front of me.

I avoided the car then tripped and went airborne landing on shoulder, leg, outstretched arm and other body parts.

As always, when I fall down I get up and I keep going. That motivation comes from a football coach in high school who would personally kick our butts it we were back up instantly after hitting the ground

I made the greenlight and kept on running with what I thought was a pretty bad shoulder sprain. I finished my run got home and realized it was probably the worst shoulder sprain either head. Then I went to my GP and he said "son you have a serious rotator cuff injury."

son you have a serious rotator cuff injury.

So I go to a really good orthopedic surgeon who says "son you have a really bad rotator cuff injury. 0"

After the MRI he said "son, you have a massive shoulder separation with rotator cuff injuries that have completely severed the two largest tendons and damaged a few others".

This fall was the last straw for an area that was severely injured back when I was in college wrestling. It was subsequently damaged in the bed mountain bike fall, they fall I took while boulder climbing in the Sierras, and serious line pulling another activities while sailing

After the MRI , my surgeon noted that there was a fair amount of scar tissue  already among the tendons and asked what had happened. 

The wrestling injury was the first of many on that shoulder. Other injuries included those mountain biking sailing a number of other things including ice climbing.

As it turns out this injury was inevitable. My surgeon told me I was very lucky this didn't happen when I was up on the mountain by myself because I wouldn't be able to get down.

That would mean having to push the emergency button on my GPS tracker, and be hauled out by helicopter. That would be embarrassing as hell. I do not ever want to be that guy.

Anyway, I was able to make contact with the shoulder expert, Dr. Jonathan Goff, at the Mt. Tam sports orthopedic center. He said he hopes to have the surgery so successful that I could return to ice climbing. He hopes. I hope. 

But only the recovery will tell. I will be in my arm brace for 4 to 6 weeks because of the severity of the injury. And I'm looking at eight months to a year worth of physical therapy before I can get back out and see how well it works.

Surgery was the only thing that could fix it. Ripped tendons don't rehab without slicing, dicing, sewing staplling, drilling and suture anchors. For all I know, there was a SawzAll and A ball peen hammer involved.

Had the surgery yesterday, and I am recovering in a recliner which will be my chair and my bed for several weeks. I have a cool machine called a polar care which circulates icewater continually through the device on my shoulder. I also have a nifty pain pump that continually puts pain medication into a nerve block through a tiny catheter about the same diameter as the sick fishing line.

I also have some 100 Megaton narcotic pills which would go for a damn fortune on the street I think. I've never taken pain medication for previous broken bones fractures of the skull pretty extensive stitches and other athletic injuries. But now, here I am, with enough stuff to knock out a moose. I'm expected to knees need those as the nerve block wears off and actually gets removed tomorrow. 

That is a long way of saying, that this tactical trucker need to make a tactical retreat before heading to the mountain again.

During that time I will focus on gear. and keeping up-to-date on the rotator cuff injury. 

I will also be using voice dictation with all of those post, including this one. and that may make for some funky spelling and punctuation. Your tolerance of that greatly appreciated.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Quick Notes on the 2014 Beaujolais Nouveau-- in time for your Thanksgiving

Review of Beaujolais Nouveau for Thanksgiving

For your Thanksgiving, nothing beats a Beaujolais Nouveau--they are light, easy to drink, and fairly inoffensive.

But they do vary a great deal from one producer to another, so it helps to go to a tasting of the holiday favorites like that held annually at Kermit Lynch in Berkeley, CA yesterday. 

I was unable to make it there, but colleague Doug Eakins was kind enough to send these quick notes. As it happens, only one of the wines here was a Nouveau; the rest are more traditional Gamay Beaujolais wines. 

  • 2012 Macon Farges Henri Perrusset Chardonnay: okay; steel aged with a mineral tas
  • 2014 Beaujolais Nouveau Domaine Depeuble and Jean Foillard; both are okay but have no depth.
  • 2013 Beaujolais Villages Guy Breton Gamay: interesting bouquet and some depth.
  • 2013 Cote De Brouilly Nicole Chanrion Gamay; very refined...bought one.
  • 2013 moulin-A-Vent Domaine Diochon Gamay: poor bouquet, but some finish.
You notice that Doug felt the Nouveau had no depth -- not surprising, since it was grapes on the vine only a month ago.

But for all its lack of sophistication, the Nouveaus can be a pleasant accompaniment to holiday dinner, especially dinners with so many components, as is typical of Thanksgiving. It is very much more a beverage than a wine. See our John Engstrom's in-depth suggestions for holiday wines.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Passaggio Wines 2012 Sauvignon Blanc--In Love Again!

Cynthia Cosco, Passaggio Wines
As I've mentioned in earlier columns, I came across Cynthia Cosco when she was tweeting as a manager of the Crushpad facility in San Francisco and later in Sonoma. I was extremely lucky to decide to show support for my Twitter friend by condescending to buy a bottle of her first wine, a 2008 unoaked Chardonnay under her personal label, Passaggio. I even paid $14 for the wine plus $16 for shipping because I just didn’\'t have time to drive over to The City to pick it up.

Little did I know how transforming this friendly purchase would prove to be. I was completely knocked out by her wine, and converted over to a white-wine enthusiast when I realized that there must be many winemakers trying, like Cindy, to do something fresh and new and flavorful with their white wines. I've never been so grateful for an accidental discovery in my life, and I've been a Cindy Cosco fan ever since. When she set up her full-fledged wine operation and started a wine club, I was one of the first subscribers.

Last year she moved Passaggio from Sonoma to the Wine Works on Third Street in San Francisco’s newly hip Dogpatch district. I went over there a couple of times recently, first for Passaggio’s welcome party, and the following week to the release party to pick up my shipment (I‘ve wised up about shipping).

Just as I had discovered from Cindy just how good a Chardonnay could be, this time I got another knock-my-socks-off experience with a white wine I've never gotten excited about before: Sauvignon Blanc.

2012 Passaggio ‘UNMARKED’ 'Probable Cause' Lake County Sauvignon Blanc $18

Sauvignon Blancs I usually find a little too sharp, especially the popular New Zealand style. But Passaggio's approach is completely different: rounder, without the sharp elbows. This smoothness lets the fruit come forward in a way I haven't tasted in other SBs, and it's wonderful. This SB is more thoughtful, with a longer finish, full and mouthfilling. It's the best Sauvignon Blanc I've ever had, and now I find myself enthused about what this grape can do -- in the hands of a master. I will be drinking a lot of this in the coming year. (I should buy a case of this soon, before she sells out.)

(One of the many wonderful things about wine is discovering new wines, new grapes, and new versions of wines you thought you knew.)

The "UNMARKED" label on this and Passaggio's Pinot Noir are tributes by Cindy to her former life as a Baltimore cop: A percentage of the sales of these two wines goes to a charity for families of fallen police officers.

2011 and 2012 New Generation California Unoaked Chardonnay - $23.
Cindy's 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay was my introduction to this winemaker, and it changed my wine-drinking habits. I had been strictly a Reds guy; whites were simply uninteresting. The 2008 Passaggio Chard changed all that – it was made not only unoaked, but also without malolactic fermentation – which I didn't think was possible. The result was a white wine with wonderful fruit, enormous flavor, and a long, long finish. I was entranced.

I liked the 2009 and the 2010 too, but the 2011 version wasn't quite as thrilling; still good, but leaner. Cindy tells me that  2012 was a great growing year, and as a result her 2012 California New Generation Unoaked California Chardonnay is the proof – a wonderful nose, clean and clear, full of flavor and fruit, and with that unique long finish. The price has gone up to $23, from the $14 of the initial release, but it’s unquestionably worth it. (I should buy a case of this, too….)

2012 Passaggio New Generation California Pinot Grigio $19
Pinot Grigio can be catch-as-catch-can, with lovely aromas and no real taste – a pretty water, in too many cases. Passaggio's version does not suffer from this problem – it has that charming, complex floral-and-pear nose, but the flavor is all there – light grapefruit and pear, a nice level of acidity (good for food), and a nice long finish (another rarity in Pinot Grigio). Great!

2012 Passaggio California "Rose Colored Glasses: Rosé $17

This is a tasty ‘deck’ wine – chilled, it will make a tasty summery drink for hot days.

That’s not to say this is a lightweight or non-serious wine. To the contrary, this saignee-style rosé, co-fermented 65% Merlot from Carneros and 35% Napa Cab, is a good example of what rosé does best: present a complex of brilliant flavors of dark cherry and raspberry and strawberry, nicely touched with a bit of acidity and tannin, and of course with the finish that tells you this wine is well made. If you think you don't like rosé , give this wine a chance to change your mind. It's a delight.

2011 Passaggio UNMARKED 'Code Seven' Pinot Noir,  Napa Valley, Single Vineyard, Fagan Creek, $45
I love Pinot in what I think of as the Burgundy style – light yet flavorful, with a long finish – in contrast to the beefier West Coast style that seems to be trying to make a Cab out of it. This Passaggio is more a Burgundy than an Oregon Pinot, thank goodness, but I wasn't as knocked out by it as by the other wines here. It seemed to me a bit lean, with a nice nose but not enough light fruit flavor. This is not really my style; I find many Pinots aren’t my style, so I'm not hugely surprised.

Bottom Line: This is a winemaker you must watch closely as she proves her talent and her unique perspective in winemaking again and again. I heartily recommend that you try her wines, see if you become, like me, an enthused member of the Cindy Cosco Winemaker Fan Club. Passaggio Wines, San Francisco.

P.S.!! I forgot to mention in my original post that Cindy also took several of us into the back to barrel-sample her upcoming Merlot. It was spectacularly delicious, full of fruit and flavor! I can't wait to taste it from the bottle, see how much of that fruit survives the bottling (barrel samples are sometimes more fruit-forward than the final product). 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

San Joaquin Wine Competition Tries an Interesting (and More Fun) New Judging Method

April  2013
By Mac McCarthy/SavvyTaste

I had the opportunity and pleasure to join SavvyTaste founder Lew Perdue in my third year of judging at the San Joaquin Valley 2013 Wine Competition, which was held at the Ramos Torres Winery tasting room in Kingsburg, south of Fresno, in the Central Valley of California.

This warm, flat, sunny land is the heart of California’s enormous productive farmland producing rice, fruit, vegetables, most of the almonds grown in the world, and is also the center of grape production. Most of these grapes go into cheap jug wines and box wines (and eating grapes), but also popular volume wines from Turning Leaf, Barefoot Cellars, Carlo Rossi, Weibel, and Naked Grape, among many others. The wineries in this area also offer, as it happens, some finer wines a considerable step up from the mass-market high-volume wines, and the annual San Ramon Valley Wine Competition is intended to highlight and publicize these efforts. I get a big kick out of driving out from the San Francisco Bay Area to see what their efforts are producing.

In previous years I've judged, the process was long tables with the judges sitting side-by-side tasting flights in unison and judging on their own, with little or no discussion or kibitzing. I have to say, it tended to be a bit boring, especially since you start tasting and spitting before 9 AM, finishing up at noon. The tastiness of the wines varies a lot; occasionally you taste a really good one but you don’t know whose it is because it’s a blind tasting – all you have is an ID number.

This year they have a new head of the competition and he made a radical change – and I like the change a lot.

We were seated around tables, four or six judges at each. Our orders were to reach a consensus of the table as to the wines we were tasting – to discuss each flight and decide what we thought. This turned the judging from a lone slog into an interesting, even educational social event.

The judging process was much simpler than in years past – instead of a 20-point scale of several dimensions, this time things were reduced to their simplest: We were to decide whether each wine we tasted deserved a medal – Gold, Silver, or Bronze – or no medal at all. Couldn't be simpler.

Our table included wine journalist and marketing consultant Mike Stepanovich; Jessica, a young woman who works in the Ramos Torres tasting room (I didn't get her last name; apologies); and a young winemaker, Nick DeHart, of Fasi Estate Winery in Friant, a tiny town in the foothills outside of Fresno.

Nick’s expert commentary on the wines as we tasted them was invaluable: He’d point out aspects and elements of the wines that helped us focus and form our opinions – especially when it came to the “balance” of the wine, a key aspect that really summarizes the whole wine. Nick’s quiet guidance was much appreciated; he didn't push his opinion or his expertise, he just pointed out this or that feature of the wines, giving us things to think about.

It was also interesting to see Jessica’s reactions. She often had a different take on the wines from the rest of us, liking some much more than we did, disliking others that we liked. Just as interesting was seeing how entirely self-assured she was in her tastes: She might have been considerably younger than two of us, and she wasn’t a winemaker, but she knew exactly what she liked, and was unfazed when her opinion varied from ours. I liked that about her, especially since our slogan here at SavvyTaste is “Drink what you like.”
To my disappointment, we got few whites and no Roses to taste. But we did get and appreciated the ’10 Alicante Bouschet from Cedar View Winery (which got a Gold), and the NV Alicante Bouschet from Silkwood Wines (Best of Class), the ’11 Chenin Blanc-Viognier Blend from Pepi (Gold), and the ‘09 Petit Verdot from Cardella (Gold).

So a good time was had by all. Though I could see that the approach in this competition would tend to yield more medal winners than a complex 20-point scale might, it was a lot more fun. And we didn’t give medals to any sub-par wines. I also recognize that this approach helps the competition hand out more medals, which the winemakers love, of course, because it helps move the merchandise, since so many casual wine buyers are much impressed by medals (as by 90-point labels).

Another purpose of this competition is a dual one: To persuade the public, over time, that the San Joaquin Valley is capable of producing fine wines in addition to jug wines and eating grapes – and to reward Valley winemakers who stretch to produce fine wines even when that’s not where the volume or big money is.
So how are they doing? The first competition I judged, four years ago, there were not many truly fine wines in the tasting; almost all were drinkable, but only a couple of Syrahs and a really fine Chenin Blanc were truly fine wines. The following year, the quality of the entries overall had noticeably risen. I missed last year’s event. This year I only tasted two wines I thought sub-par and a few that, while fun to drink, could not be considered high level. The majority were quite good; many were better than quite good; and a few were indeed fine wines.

The San Joaquin Valley is heading in the right direction. They aren’t Napa yet and, given their environment probably never will be; they aren’t even Lodi yet. But they are good enough that if you find yourself in the Valley it would be worth your time to search out a few tasting rooms and checking them out. I’d especially like to point out Nick’s Fasi Estate Winery in Friant, Saviez Family Estates in Fresno, Pepi in Parlier (near Fresno), and Cardella in Mendota (smack in the Central Valley between Interstate 5 and State 99). And especially Cedar View Winery in Sanger, just east of Fresno: their Syrah, Grenache, and Tempranillo are delicious.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Event: St. George Spirits Celebrates 30 Years

Though I am primarily a wine guy, I can't resist mentioning the upcoming 30th anniversary party for St. George's Spirits, an Alameda (CA) distillery noted primarily for its Hanger One vodkas.

If you are in the San Francisco Bay area, the event is this Friday evening, November 30, from 7:30 to 10, at the distillery at 2601 Monarch St., Alameda. For you wine people, that's just down the street from RockWall Wines and around the corner from Rosenblum.

It's $75, which is pricey (though as a blogger in the area I'll probably be able to get in free, fair warning), but under the title "30 Years Under the Influence: St. George's Tale of Liquid Courage," the event will include attractions such as a panel discussion by the three founders who started the biz before the idea of craft liquors had gained traction and who now, in addition to their mainstay flavored vodkas also produce absinthe, gin, single-malt whiskey (my personal favorite of their lineup), rum agricola (whatever that is), and both coffee and tea liqueurs (which I've also never heard of -- have you?). There will be a Grand Tour of the joint, three specialty liqueurs ("decades-inspired"), and munchies.

Here's a pic of the three knuckleheads who were crazy enough to get into this business: Founder George Rupf and Distillers "resident evil genius" Lance Winters and "mad alchemist" Dave Smith.

Let me know if you decide to go, we can compare notes....

--Mac McCarthy   (@MacMcWong)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

What Wine with Thanksgiving Dinner?

What Wine with Thanksgiving?

Ahhh, Thanksgiving dinner: the turkey, the dressing, the gravy, the sweet potatoes, the cranberries, the green bean casserole, and the pumpkin pie. The question is: “What wine goes with all that?” Well, it’s a tough question to answer.

First, let me say that I agree with the “your favorite wine” philosophy. If you really like Cabernet Sauvignon, then go for it. I just don’t think there is anything in the typical Thanksgiving dinner that will enhance the Cabernet, and vice-versa.

Second, Thanksgiving is an American holiday, so the wine should come from America too. No, I don’t mean native American grapes (the idea of Concord wine with turkey makes me shudder). I mean European grapes grown in the United States. Wait, some of you readers are saying: “What about Beaujolais Nouveau?” I know that the release of Beaujolais Nouveau seems to coincide with Thanksgiving dinner very nicely, and that it may be one of the few wines that actually complements cranberry sauce, but if it were released a month earlier or a month later, it wouldn’t be on your Thanksgiving wine radar.

My third parameter is that big reds are out. That means Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Petite Verdot, Meritage, other Bordeaux style blends, and big fat Zinfandels are not good matches (though the leaner, more balanced Zins may have a place).

So, what’s left? Please don’t reach for that Chardonnay just yet. In fact, don’t reach for it at all. Most Chardonnay today is grown in the wrong place so it doesn’t have the acid to balance it with food. Then it is over oaked, and put through full malolactic fermentation, so that it becomes more of a cocktail wine than a food wine. If you are wondering how to tell if the Chardonnay you are buying is grown in the “wrong place”, determine what that producer’s star red wine. If it’s something other than Pinot Noir, chances are great that your Chardonnay is grown in the wrong place. You could serve the Chardonnay as an aperitif, but how about a Methode Champenoise sparking wine? Bubbly is always a good choice for a special occasion, and sparkling wine usually has enough acidity to be served with food. If you plan on a sparkling wine with Thanksgiving dinner, choose one of the toasty-yeasty ones, not the delicate lemony ones.

Believe it or not, there are white wines other than Chardonnay. Sauvignon Blanc may be the right choice for the green bean casserole and the stuffing/dressing if you make yours with oysters. Roussanne or a Roussanne / Marsanne blend would be an excellent pairing with white meat turkey, mashed potatoes, and a stuffing/dressing that is not overwhelming (no oysters, no red meat sausage, and herbs “in check”). Gewurztraminer, either dry or off-dry would work for the same food items. A Semillon, if you can find a good one, might be the best of all, but fewer and fewer producers seem to be making it. Albariño, a Spanish white variety, is becoming popular, and I can imagine the right one being a good choice for Thanksgiving, but I have some research to do; maybe next year.

As for red wine, Pinot Noir is a great choice, and if I were only going to have one wine, this would probably be it. It should be a good Pinot Noir  though; this is no time for a bargain-basement wine.  Neither Merlot nor Syrah would be my choice, but I can’t fault either. Zinfandel, so long as it’s a balanced one, would be an excellent choice if the stuffing/dressing has nuts or sausage, or if the yams are on the spicy side, rather than of the marshmallow-topped variety. Grenache would also be a fine choice, especially if the turkey is smoked. Sangiovese or Tempranillo may be interesting options. The trouble is many winemakers tend to use too much new oak in the aging process for these wines, or add Cabernet Sauvignon. These winemakers seem to think that both give these wines more “structure”, but ruin them for our purpose. Barbera, because of its natural acidity, would be an interesting selection, but it goes so well with tomato-sauced Italian food that I tend to want to save it for Lasagna.

Then there is rosé. A dry rosé goes with a myriad of foods, and may be an alternative here. This is especially true if the gravy or potatoes came out a little too salty.

So where does that leave us? With the turkey breast and potatoes, a white with good body (read as no light-bodied wines) and good acidity (read as forget most Chardonnay).  With the dark meat and the gravy, I’d go for a Pinot Noir or a Grenache. The stuffing/dressing pairing really depends on what’s included. If oysters or sausage are included, then your choices may be limited, but otherwise, a full-bodied white or a light- to medium-bodied red will work fine. With sweet potatoes or yams, well, if they have marshmallows on top, no wine is ideal, but a medium-bodied red won’t be overwhelmed. With a slightly spicier serving (look up Ancho Sweet-Potato purée on, then Zinfandel comes to the fore. With green bean casserole, well, I omit the green bean casserole, because I am not a fan, but if you insist, a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Noir is your best choice. With the cranberries, sparkling wine may be your only reasonable option.  If you are limiting yourself to two wines, I’d go with a Pinot Noir and a good sparkler. A Grenache and a Gewurztraminer would be my second choice.

For all the troubles with the main part of the dinner, dessert is easy: late-harvest Gewurztraminer with pumpkin pie or late-harvest Riesling with apple pie. Bon appetite!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Two more winning Passaggio wines from Cynthia Cosco -- How does she do it?

Rose, Chardonnay -- Yum!

Just received new Passaggio 2010 New Generations Unoaked Chardonnay and 2010 'Rose Colored Glasses' Rose and had to crack them open for a taste--has one-time Baltimore cop and now winemaker Cynthia Cosco maintained her extraordinarily high standard for her Chard? And has she pulled it off with her new Rose too?

Quick answer to both questions: Yes, ma'am, she has -- and maybe even topped herself! The Chard is delicately fruity and French, with a *finish*, which I am not used to in a Chard: a deliciousness that lingers on the tongue and demands another sip. It is actually better than her original maiden effort of three years ago!

And the Rose, of Zin and Cab, is also fruity, and surprisingly delicate considering its grapes--again, flavorful, with a light citrus tang. 

Highly, highly recommended. Especially if you are tired if the same old Chard (or don't even like Chard!). And the Rose is delightful.

The 2011 Chard is a bargain at $19; the Rose at $17. Don't dawdle, by the way: The 2010 Chard has long been sold out. Expect the current Chard, and the Rose, to follow. 

Two tips for you: One, join her wine club. You get four bottles a couple times a year and get to see what fresh experiments she's coming up with, which is fun. And two: Her newest wine, a Pinot Noir, is available in futures--$300 the case. A risk, for a brand-new wine nobody has yet tasted-- but look at this winemaker's record!!, Sonoma, CA.

(And yes, that's my thumb in the upper right corner; I will never get the hang of the iPhone....)

Monday, November 21, 2011

How To Find A Tasty French Wine

The Trick: Look for the Importer's Label
Mike Steinberger, the wine writer at Salon, wrote an article titled, "Never Buy a Bad Bottle of Wine Again," in which explained how to choose a European wine without having to learn all the mind-numbing labels, domaines, chateaux, and terroirs:

"There is a simple, usually failsafe means of determining whether a foreign wine is worth buying if you are having trouble deciphering the label: Flip the bottle around and see who imported it."

And indeed, after enjoying another evening tasting French wines brought to California by importer Return to Terroir, I've come to realize how good that advice is.

I first met the importer's representative, Raphael Knapp, when invited to a small wine event he held a few years ago in a San Francisco restaurant to promote some of the wines his firm represents. I was impressed: The wines, all French, were tasty, enjoyable, pleasant -- and, it turns out, very reasonably priced. And you know how hard it can be to find an affordable French wine without being disappointed.

Raphael and his colleagues perform this trick by finding wines from little-known winemakers, from places near but not in the most expensive winemaking areas of France, wines that are a bit offbeat and underappreciated.

Raphael, I've discovered and confirmed in subsequent tastings over the years, has the knack.

How does he do it? By finding new-generation winemakers, wines made from grapes we hardly know in America, and chateaux that are just over the hill from the more renowned and expensive ones. Here is his description of his most recent trip to France to find more wines.

"Ten days, 60 wineries selected and visited, 2000 kms driven through the French countryside, and a dozen wineries added to my imports pipeline (Montlouis, Cahors, Gaillac, Fronton, Northern Rhone, Jura and Alsace). Grapes include: Chenin Blanc, Malbec, Negrette, Braucol, Loin de l'Oeil, Mauzac, Viognier, Savagnin, Pinot Blanc, and more... Many are organic, all are Vignerons Independants. Mission accomplished. France is beautiful, the wines are better than ever, with so many young, ambitious winemakers. Most importantly, the new generation understands that French wines = diversity. Every region sees a resurgence of native grapes. I am so excited of introducing that diversity to our California customer friends. And I cannot wait to my next trip when i will visit more of the exciting southwest, Marcillac and smaller appellations from Provence and Languedoc Roussillon." 

"If you don't know the Negrette, Savagnin, Jacquere, Baco, Folle Blanche, Picpoul, Mauzac, Duras, or Altesse grapes, you will soon, thanks to France's exciting NEW GENERATION of young, passionate winemakers. Outside the beaten path of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the country is home to dozens of indigenous grapes and this is so exciting!!"

Doesn't that just make you want to come by and try some of these non-pricey exotics? It does me, so last month I dropped by a tasting-presentation Raphael held at the tiny wine bar Alameda Wine Co., next to the movie theater on the San Francisco Bay island of Alameda. Only a dozen were there to enjoy Raphael's latest discoveries -- and the wines were, as usual, most enjoyable, and the company most amusing. Let's take a look -- bearing in mind that all these wines are available at the restaurants and wine bars Raphael supplies, specifically in this case the Alameda Wine Co., rather than in stores. Expect to pay between $13 and $38 a bottle; bargain prices for the flavor.

First up was a white, a 2010 Picpoul-de-Pinet from Languedoc Roussillon, along the Mediterranean coast, made by Domain Felines Jourdan. This is an acid-clean white knicknamed in French "lip-stinger" because of the acid tang. I liked it, and imagine it would go well with most foods. The bottle is tall and thin, like a German white, and has a Celtic cross design on it; Picpoul is a Celtic word, and wine was first made here in Roman times.

I now see why Decanter Magazine wrote about Picpoul from this winemaker as a white that is becoming suddenly fashionable: "Climate change may have something to do with it, but this citrusy mineral wine has bright acidity, making it perfect for summer days... [Domain Felines Jourdan] is, for me, the top Picopul de Pinet producer."

Next we had a Rose. Chateau Flotie produces a Fronton Rose 2010, made from Negrette, a dark-red native grape grown mainly in southwest France near Toulouse a descended from a grape grown in Cyprus). Legend says it was brought to France by the Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem during the time of the 12th-century Crusades.

This Rose has a lovely nose, a silky-unctuous feeling on the tongue. It's very pleasant, dark fruit with good acid, easy to drink -- this is a Deck Wine. Yum.

A Malbec was up next: Mas del Perie, Les Escures, 2009, from Cahors. This winery is remarkable in part because the winemaker/owner, rising star Fabien Jouves, is only 26 years old. The wine was made in stainless - no oak at all. The result is an unusual tasting Malbec, dense and tasty.

Cahors, in southwest France, is "the birthplace of Malbec," according to Raphael. "The dominant grape variety in AOC Cahors wines is Malbec, which must make up a minimum of 70% of the wine, and which is known locally as 'Côt,' 'Côt Noir' or 'Auxerrois.' "

The next wine was called "Elle" and is another Fronton from Chateau Flotis, 2007. It's 80% Negrette and 10% Syrah, producing a rich, cmoplex wine with lots of dark fruit, a big middle, with nice tannins. I liked this wine too. It's only $13 (!).

La Bastide Saint Dominique, 2009, is a Cote de Rhone with 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah; it didn't have the high fruit ofmany Grenache wines, but was rich and tasty, with a nice finish.

Our Bordeaux of the evening was Chateau Cap Leon Veyrin, a Listrac-Medoc, 55% Merlot and 45% Cab. It was nice, but didn't have as much fruit as I think it should have. Is that what "reserved" is supposed to mean?

The grand finale was a Chateauneuf du Pape: La Bastide St. Dominique again, 2008: 80% Grenache,10% Syrah, 5% Mouvedre, and 5% Cinsault. This was the hit of the night: Wonderful nose; very balanced, wonderful middle; just the right amount of tannin to make it stand up; Raphael says it's unoaked.

This is one of those "Why I believe I'll have just another sip" wines that we kept coming back to, until we had drunk it all up and were wishing there was more. This winner is $38, the most expensive wine of the evening, and worth it.

A most excellent tasting. Thanks to Raphael, to the attentive staff of the Alameda Wine Co., and to my amusing drinking mates.

You can visit Return to Terroir from time to time to keep an eye on upcoming tasting events in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

"Spice & Cloves" -- A Lip-Smacking New Blend from Concannon

By Mac McCarthy,

Concannon, one of the winemaking anchor tenants of Livermore, CA, has a new and very tasty red-wine blend in its lineup.

Dubbed "Crimson & Clover," this is a blend that successfully turns the sometimes tannic Petite Syrah grape (or Petite Sirah, as Concannon styles it) into a juicy, fruity, fun wine.

The wine is half Petite Sirah, plus a quarter Cabernet Sauvignon for breadth and complexity, 15% Syrah for rich dark fruit, and 10% Zinfandel for another dose of a different kind of fruit. Alcohol is at 13.7%.

The result is an $15 bottle of wine that will make every level of wine drinker smile, while satisfying the demands of more sophisticated palates for richness and a reasonable degree of complexity. The wine is soft, especially for a Petite, without the tough tannins of some Petites. The blackberry fruit set in a background of a rich middle and a very nice finish make this the kind of wine where you take a taste, then after a moment you just have to take another sip. That makes it both fun and satisfying.

This is surprisingly good for a mass-market wine -- Concannon has made 10,000 cases of the stuff. The list price, at $15, is very fair, and worth it to reach up from the $10 everyday wines some of us favor. At the recent Livermore Harvest Wine Festival, Concannon was offering a two-for-one promotional special. I had received a  bottle free for this review, but it was so good I had to buy a couple more bottles. They won't last long.

Concannon, along with Wente, is one of the original wine-grape growers in Livermore, having been established in 1883. They like to brag that they're the first successful Irish-American winery in the U.S. (!), and that they were the first winery to sell Petite Syrah as a varietal, starting in 1961. Obviously, they've learned how to turn this sometimes-tricky grape into a quaffer.  

They and Wente are also notable for having helped many new Livermore winemakers establish themselves; as a result, there are now some 40 winemakers in the Livermore Valley, bottling wines mostly from Livermore grapes. This Crimson & Clover, for example, is one of Concannon's "Conservancy Collection," and is made entirely from grapes grown in the Livermore Conservancy, a land trust that protects the most valued winegrowing lands in this San Francisco suburb from development.

Livermore is one of those oft-overlooked major grape-growing and winemaking areas unfamiliar to wine tourists to Northern California, but overdue to be discovered for its many high-quality wines for the vast majority of wine lovers who aren't interested in throwing their money away on cult wines from the more famous venues nearby.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Lake County Wines: Overlooked, Underpriced, Pretty Tasty!

Lake County Wines: Overlooked, Underpriced, Pretty Tasty!

By Mac McCarthy,

Top Line

Lake County, California, is a winegrowing area in Northern California surrounding Clear Lake, east of the famed winegrowing areas of Napa and Sonoma. The lake is the largest in California, and the area includes The Geysers, the largest geothermal field complex  in the world.

For the purposes of wine drinking, however, the two most important facts about Lake County are, first, its well-drained volcanic hillside soils and rich alluvial soils in the valleys; and its five AVAs producing good wine that, because the area is relatively overlooked compared to other California wine areas, prices are very reasonable for the quality of the wine.

To fix the problem of being overlooked, a dozen wineries founded a winery association to promote to the world the virtues of the wines produced by the nearly 40 wineries of Lake County. This campaign resulted in the 'Wines of Lake County' winetasting event held on Treasure Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay, at The Winery -- another novelty, as several small winemakers have recently set up shop on the island too.

The Best and Most Interesting of the Lake County Wines

Rather than running down the selection of nearly 100 wines shown by the 22 attending winemakers, we'll jump to the bottom line and highlight the wines that most impressed or interested me.

Cheryl Lucido, winemaker, Laujor Estate
You will notice that all these wines are priced in the teens or twenties, nothing higher. These are popularly priced wines, and almost all are the kinds of wines that can be enjoyed and appreciated even by beginner wine drinkers. There weren't any "hold for ten years before you open this," nor wines that you needed to learn to appreciate. All, even the most sophisticated, were approachable and most were quaffable. The only down note is that many of these are very small wineries making very small quantities of some wines and selling most of them to restaurants, or to their wine clubs. If you get a chance to try them -- maybe heading up to Lake Country for a weekend (it's about three hours northeast of San Francisco) -- you might find yourself joining a wine club or two.

Best of show in my opinion has to go to Laujor Estate Winery, with a tip of the hat to winemaker Cheryl Lucido, who clearly has the magic palate: Her 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, done in stainless and neutral oak, was the best SB I tasted that day, and is available online for $18. Her 2009 Barbera, $23, was every juicy tasty thing a Barbera can be; and I also liked her 2009 Zinfandel ($24). What a winemaker!

Ceago Vineyards  had a very nice 2009 Del Lago Syrah Rose, $16; only 200 cases made.

Chacewater Wine Cooffered a noteworthy $16 2010 Chardonnay, Burgundian style; if you're tired of standard-style Chards, try this one. They also had a Cab-like '09 Malbec with a little more fruit than I usually find in Malbecs, thanks presumably to an always-welcome splash of Petit Verdot; $18, but they only made 81 cases of it. Their '09 Petite Syrah ($18) is rich but a bit tannic.

Lavender Blue
Lavender Blue offered a novelty: "Sweet Suave"  Sauvignon Blanc (2010, $18), made slightly sweet by stopping fermentation before the sugar is completely converted (rather than late harvest). This wine could be a hit among the White Zin crowd; and actually, I found it friendly, tasty, and easy-going, and wouldn't turn down a glass myself.

Six Sigma Ranch 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Michael's Vineyard, $22, aged in oak rather than steel -- that worked: Nice! They also poured the '08 of their Cuvee Pique-Nique, a Cab-Merlot blend with some Petite Verdot and Cab Franc splashed in there -- the cute name would be annoying if the wine weren't so tasty, and with a wonderful nose.

Steele Wines has a yummy (that's a technical term) 2010 Shooting Star Reisling at an equally yummy $12 price tag; that was their best wine being shown.

Sol Rouge
Sol Rouge had quite a few interesting wines, starting with a delicious Viognier and an interesting Sauv Blanc and a nice Rose, and segueing into an "elegant"-style Zin with a nice middle, and winding up with a tasty "Gypsy Rose" whose components I neglected to write down. Only problem: Almost everything they make is sold to restaurants (with a few bottles left over going to their wine club). So if you happen to see the name Sol Rouge on the wine menu, consider it.

Rosa d'Oro's Peitro Buttitta

Rosa d'Oro was doing some very interesting things with Italian varietals: a $20 Nebbiolo and a $20 Sangiovese had the most wonderful noses, and interesting tastes, and their also-$20 Barbera was a big yes. I didn't care for the Primitivo, alas.

The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc from Wildhurst Vineyards has the most wonderful aroma, and was nicely balanced in flavor; oh, and it's only $12.

Bottom Line

If you see "Lake County" as the wine origin on the menu, go ahead. You're likely to be happy with it.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Urban Legend: Just What You Want from your Boutique Winery...

In August (2011) I stopped by a refresher on the wines of Urban Legend, the small winery in Oakland's Ironworks district near Jack London Square, and one of my favorite of the two dozen urban wineries in the San Francisco East Bay area.

Steven and Marilee Shaffer have built an interesting line of fine wines, every one a tasty example of what you hope for from a boutique winery: Interesting variations on the standards, plus novel wines from grapes you don't see often because they aren't volume sellers. Urban Legend has both.

 Let's get to the wines. Which ones should you pay attention to?

2010 Rosato di Barbera - $19 - A delicious dry rose with a nice middle and good balance -- in fact, "balance" is the characteristic I began to realize, as I tasted across the lineup, that is shared by all the Shaffer's wines. This rose is a great "Porch Wine" -- to drink on the back porch in the summer. New release. (By the way, the grapes here are from Amador county; it has belatedly dawned on me that all the really tasty Barberas I've had lately are made from grapes sourced in Amador County!)

Tocai Friulano, Nichelini Vineyards Rose Block, Chiles Valley, Napa County, 2010, $24 - Nice aroma; stone fruit, then mineral finish; nice acid balance. Marilee said someone referred to the flavor as "a little stone fruit in a bucket of rocks," and that's apt. Nice longer finish. A food wine.

What the heck is it? It's the U.S. version of the wine sold in Italy's Friulani region, and is related to the French Sauvignon Vert (or Muscadelle or Sauvignonasse, just to confuse the issue) and used as a blend component in Sauternes. Interesting.

Sauvignon Blanc, Lake County, 2010, $18 - Made from organic grapes, the acid in this one fills the edges of mouth in a nice way. Nice balanced fruit.

Riesling, Lake Co., 2010, $18 - I like these sweet, and this is dry, but I like it anyway because it's beautiful -- has just enough 'hint' of sweetness (mainly the fruit giving me the illusion of sweetness) to balance the light acid. Like so many Urban Legend wines, it's very nice with a balance middle. They say they made it Alsatian style.

Amador Mouvedre, 2007, $24 - What a wonderful aroma! Brings a smile to your face. Red fruit/raspberry. Again, wonderfully balanced. A dozen fruits! wonderful. 13+%.

Amador Barbera, 2009, $26 - Here it is again, Amador Barbera -- and it is Dee Licious. Cherry, blackberry, cloves, maybe nutmeg--Christmas in a wine. An A++ wine. Grower is Dick Cooper, "the godfather of Barbera" in Amador.

Petit Verdot, Mendocino Co., 2009, $29 - Bright, dark, acidic fruit, round, nice middle, nice tannin, nice aroma - spicy. Deep purple--you can't see anything through it, it's that dark. It's commonly used in Bordeaux, to which is adds (badly needed) juiciness. On its own, it's a juice bomb! But with tannin and more complexity than you'd think.

Teroldego - Holland Landing 2009, Clarksburg, $28. Teroldego isn't a grape you've heard much about -- there is hardly any grown in California, no more than 100 acres, and Urban Legend is one of only two or three wineries here making it. Teroldego is a great-grandparent of Syrah, Steve told me. It's quieter, fruit-wise, than the Petit Verdot I had just had -- and richer, and more tannic. They aged it nine months or so in the bottle before releasing it, to give it extra time to evolve. Good stuff.

Malbec, Mendocino County 2009, $29: Malbec can be harsh, tannic, and crude. It can be good, too, and this is one of those. In addition to a good growing year (Malbec can be tricky), this Malbec benefited by being aged for a year before bottling -- Steve has been adding age to his wines as he builds up supply, and this Malbec, he says, he'd age another two years if he could, because it knits up nicely with aging.  Tasty.

So...which do I recommend? I recommend all of them. There's not a loser in the bunch -- really. My favorites of all are the two Barberas -- the red and the rose -- but I can recommend them all to you. And their other wines, too, which I've tasted in the past: Dolcetto, Sangiovese, and the fun blends Uptown, Ironworks, and the extra-fun Lolapalooza. Check them out online, or stop by for a taste when next you get a chance -- you can get there by BART (the Chinatown Oakland stop on the Fremont line; the winery is right beside the elevated BART tracks) or take the Ferry from San Francisco to Jack London Square, it's only a few-block walk. You can drive, too -- there's always plenty of street parking.

Urban Legend, 621 4th St., Oakland, CA 94607; 510-545-4356. Tasting room open Fri-Sun 1 to 6pm. Founded 2009.

Have you visited Urban Legend yet? Do post your thoughts about your favorites here in the Comments section!