Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Yep, the Snows Lake at $19 is faboo!

I've now had a glass of the Costplus-World Market $19 Rosenblum Snows Lake Zinfandel 2005 and it is indeed the Real Thing -- dense, flavorful, concentrated, sweet, yet sophisticated and complex. Go right out and buy several bottles -- then save one for next year, and one for the year after -- if past history is any judge, this will get better for several years! Yet it's also dee-licious right now!

Snow's Lake Zin at $19--Unbelievable!

I can't believe my eyes -- Cost Plus/World Market, in the California San Francisco Bay Area, at least, is selling one of the top Zinfandels in the world -- Rosenblum Cellars' Snows Lake Vineyard 2005 Lake County Zin!

In a tasting last year with a 2004 Snows Lake, the consensus among my friends was that the Snows Lake was actually as tasty as the best Zin of all, Rosenblum's Rockpile Road 2004!

Both wines typically price at $38 and up. And you don't see Rosenblums in retail very often, and the high-end Rosenblums basically never. So imagine my surprise to see this black-label champ on the shelves at discounter World Market in Walnut Creek, CA, for an eye-popping $19!!

I snapped up a couple of bottles and will taste them later today, to see if there's something wrong, or if Cost Plus/World Markets just made an incredible deal!

Meanwhile, go check the site to find if there's a store near you. If this is the real deal, you should run over and snap up as many bottles as you can afford!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What Wines for the Holidays?

Thanksgiving is tough for picking a wine, because of the variety of tastes.

You have then two choices: Bring whatever you like and don't worry about it; and/or bring a variety of bottles and don't worry about it.

One traditional T-day wine is Beaujolais Nouveau. This year's is said to be pricey and "shrugworthy" as one reviewer put it. Some recommend Cru Beaujolais, or the regular Beaujolais, from last year: Beaujolais Villages, in particular.

Here's a comment from the reviewer at Slate (Mike Steinberger)

Skip the Nouveau, bypass the Duoeuf, and instead look for a Cru Beaujolais...Generally run between $10 and $20, and the best are brought in by importers Louis/Dresner, Alain Junguenet, and Kermit Lynch.

Some wines to look for: Chateau Thivin (from the Cote de Brouilly appellation), Jacky Janodet (Moulin-a-Vent, the most esteemed appellation in the Beaujolais), Marcel Lapierre (Morgon), Domaine Diochon (Moulin-a-Vent), Jean-Paul Thevenet (Morgon), and Michel Tete (Julienas)....
A personal favorite is Dupeuble, a wine of low pedigree that is made by a conscientious producer whose ambition is not to suck every bit of life out of his vineyard but to fashion a quality quaffer. That he does: The wine, which retails for around $10, is everything good Beaujolais should be—fruity, sprightly, utterly charming. If I had a house and had a house wine, Dupeuble would be it.
Some Useful Links for Thanksgiving Wines:

Asimov: "Nouveaux Like New"

"Wines for Thanksgiving: Bottles that Make Good Guests"

and the companion piece:

"Thanksgiving Wines for Under $25

The article is especially interesting because it shows how very differently each of us tastes wine!

And if you like bubbly, Thanksgiving is a good time to break it out (also the rest of the holiday season). But instead of regular old French Champagne or American Sparkling wine, try a Carod, such as "Clairette de Die Cave Carod" - $12.99 at K&L Wines – it's really great with Pumpkin Pie! I tried it in 2006 and it was a great -- tastier than champagne!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A SavvyTaste Guide to Rose Wines and Dessert Wines ('Stickies') [Mac McCarthy]

There's more to the world of wines than just whites and reds! Let's take a brief look ROSE'S

If you want to impress -- or baffle -- your friends, start experimenting with Rose (pronounced "rose-aye' with an accent over the 'e' that I can't reproduce on my computer; it's French, what can I say?).

Rose's are made by crushing a red-skinned grape and leaving the skin in contact with the juice for just a little while; a few hours to a day or two, depending on how rosie you want it, and also depending on the grape -- some stain more than others. (There are also some red-fleshed grapes but I don't know much about them, yet.)

Red wines, you see, are made by leaving the skin with the juice for longer, so that it gets redder, and also the tannins and other flavors get into the juices even more.

White wines are made from red-skinned grapes by crushing the grapes and removing the skins from contact with the juice immediately, so none of the skin stuff gets to it.

That's why white wines are simple and elegant (if well made); reds are deeper and more intense -- and Roses are in between: The elegance of whites, with a touch of the body and tannin of the reds.

We're not about the notorious White Zinfandel here. White Zin is made the same way all Rose's are made, but the style is simple, sweet, and bland. Which is why beginners like it -- it's easy to drink, no harsh notes, and a little sweet. And it's why beginning wine drinkers find they often get tired of White Zin after a few years, as their tastes become more sophisticated the White Zins seem too simple, too sweet for no reason, too bland.

Well, move on up to other Roses, baby! One of its many charms is that there are more types of Rose than any other kind of wine, because you can make Rose out of *any red-skinned grape!* Styles range from taut, dry, French Rose made from Pinot Noir, to wild salmon- and coral-colored Roses in California from everything under the sun: Grenache, Cab, Merlot, even Zin. The tastes vary all over the map, from sophisticated and dry, to light, breezy, sweet, but with enough acid to balance the sweetness and make you realize that you really didn't mean it when you said you didn't like sweet wines -- you just hadn't had any *good* ones!

Many wineries make Rose, but they hardly sell any because of the destructive reputation of White Zinfandel that has fooled inexperienced wine drinkers into thinking Rose is some cheap junk wine. But the winemakers love to make it, for themselves! They can't sell much of it, so they make it to their own individual tastes, which is why Roses vary in style and flavor more than anything you'll ever try -- which makes it the *most fun wine* to experiment with tasting!
Prices vary -- they're not as cheap as you'd expect given that nobody but the winemakers drink the stuff - but they are well worth trying out. And keep tasting--you won't really know Roses until you've tasted several dozen brands and flavors! (They make a great wine-tasting party theme--if you can browbeat your friends into realizing that Roses are only drunk by two groups: The ignorant beginner winedrinkers with their White Zin; and the most advanced, sophisticated, worldly-wise wine aficionados who truly know their wines!

Dessert wines are another of those wine types that everybody thinks they don't like. "Oh, I don't like sweet wines," they say -- because they either started with White Zin, or with Mogan David (like my Mom did).

Darling! That's not what dessert wines taste like! That's like saying you don't like red wine because you once tried Thunderbird! Give yourself a break!

Ports and sherries I don't like as much because they are made with added brandy, which I don't care much for. But a lot of people do; a port or sherry tasting is worth taking time out for, see if it's your thing.

Me, I like so-called "late-harvest" wines -- which are left on the vines until the last possible moment, usually November in California, and February in the case of Canada's (absolutely dee-licious but expensive) 'Ice Wines'.

For me, Late-Harvest Zinfandel is God's gift to the sweet tooth -- ahhhh! There are also late-harvest Cabs and Merlots and, for real intensity, Syrahs!

Or you can try white dessert wines: Besides Canadian Ice Wine, France makes some breathtakingly expensive white stickies from the Sauterne grape -- Chateau d'Yquem is the queen of this world, with little thin half-sized bottles costing hundreds and hundreds of dollars each! But there are plenty of relatively inexpensive ($20 for a half) Sauterne dessert wines that aren't bad at all! Hungary has its own white grape that it turns into stunning Tokay stickies -- yum! Pricey!

Keep your eyes open for dessert wines; you're bound to find one, among their widely varying flavors, that knocks your taste buds out of the park!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A SavvyTaste Guide: All About Lighter Red Wines [Mac McCarthy]

Not all red wines are intense, heavily tannic, highly acidic, oaked to death, or require five years of training to work your way up to. Many styles of red wine are light, even delicate. Many are what I call "beverage wines," as opposed to the big-red "cocktail wines." (See my blog on beverage vs. cocktail wines.)

--MERLOT was for years ruined by excessive popularity. Back in the late 70s and early 1980s, Merlot, because it's so easy to drink and tasty, became "the girl's red wine" that sold well by the glass in bars. So exploitive winemakers started growing Merlot grapes on every piece of land they could find -- Merlot grapes will grow anywhere, but the problem is, if you grow them just anywhere, they won't taste very good.

It got to the point where most merlots are, at best, merely drinkable. There are indeed many good, even very very good, merlots--but now they cost a lot because only the In Crowd knows about the good Merlots. Rule of thumb: It's really hard to find a tasty merlot for under thirty bucks. (Except some Trader Joe and BevMo Merlots!)

--SHIRAZ, made from Syrah grapes, but from Australia (there are some California Shirazes these days too) -- *this* is what Merlot *used* to taste like back in the 80s, before they become overly popular and every cheap vintner jumped on it: Fruity, easy to drink, fun, tasty, yummy, and varied wildly from maker to maker. Rosemount makes terrific Shiraz, though I prefer their straight Shiraz to their blends with Merlot and Cab and other grapes. Yellowtail is another popular, inexpensive, and delicious Australian Shiraz that manages to stay yummy despite booming production. Affordable Shirazes from Australia (we find them at under $10 in California) should be on your 'everyday table wine' list.

--BORDEAUX from France can be shockingly expensive. So much so that you can pay $50 and $75 a bottle and find them not nearly as wonderful as you'd think they should be at that price. It is possible to get third-tier Bordeaux for $20 or less that are entirely drinkable. It's a crap shoot, however. This is one of those wines that is simply too easy to make a mistake with -- and it's always an expensive mistake. So let your friends experiment with and invite you along to help.
When Bordeaux are bad, they are thin and uninteresting, not simply light. When they are good, they can be light yet with enormous depth and "finish," meaning when you take a taste, the flavor lasts and lasts long after you've swallowed. Some Bordeaux can be big, though never as big as a California Zin or California Syrah.

Burgundy -- made in France from Pinot Noir grapes--can be wonderful. These are light wines, easy to drink, bland when not at their best, but very pleasant and especially good as a wine to accompany a meal, rather than drink by itself.

California Pinots vary a lot from the French style due to the different climate, and Pinot is a hard grape to control, so tastes are all over the map. Decent California and West Coast Pinots can be pricey -- $30 gets you something quite good.

A good Pinot -- say, from Lost Canyon Winery of Oakland, California, one of the best among many -- squares what you would think an impossible circle: The wine is very light, approachable, easy to drink, low in tannin -- yet at the same time, it is filled with flavor! The finish is long, and you sometimes find yourself sighing at the pleasure of it.

There are very tasty Burgundies in the same price range. However, Burgundies go up to hundreds of dollars for the very finest ones -- which I've never tasted, so I have no idea what the shouting is about up there.

French Rhones (and California "Rhone-style" wines) are blends, usually with Syrah and a delightful grape called Granache as the main ingredients, plus blending grapes you rarely hear about and can hardly pronounce, such as Carignan and Cinsault. Rhones are lighter-style wines that can be very easy to like -- light and full of flavor, like Pinots, though the flavors are very different from a Pinot. Most notable about Rhones is their aroma, or "nose," which is very distinctive and wonderful -- probably the most noticeable nose among all red wines.

There is quite a variety of flavors among Rhones and Rhone blends. I find that I like certain styles very much, yet I very much don't like others. I have never liked, for example, any of the Chateauneuf du Papes, a classic type. On the other hand, I love ones from an area called Girondas, and I like the Languedoc-region Rhones too. I have no idea why.

This is a good category for experimenting with -- the expensive ones can be very expensive, but you should be able to find off-brand French Rhones for under $20 that are well worth tasting. American Rhone-style wines, so popular that there is a winemaker's club called 'The Rhone Rangers' (heh!), vary in price all over the map -- the more jokey the label, the more reasonably priced and -- hooray! -- the easier to drink! Isn't that great? 'Cote du Bone,' for example, is from Rosenblum, a play on "Beaune," the city that is at the center of French Burgundy/Rhone country (and on the Rosenblum winery owner's side job as a vet). It's pretty cheap (low teens) yet very tasty.

Here there is much too much variety to summarize well, and within any given type of Red there can be quite a variation -- most Italian wines are light, even thin if they aren't good, though a few can be pretty robust (like those Sicilian ones I mentioned earlier). Go online to find out about which 'Barberas' and 'Sangioveses', and especially 'Chiantis', are worth buying -- with Chianti in particular it's easy to buy something too thin to be really interesting. Better yet, check the Find Wines feature to match tasty Italian reds with your own personal taste profile.

--SOUTH AFRICA is making better and better reds these days, keep an eye on them. They are also known for some offbeat grapes, such as something called "Pinotage."

--SOUTH AMERICA, that is, CHILE and ARGENTINA offer familiar wines that are sometimes good and often cheap -- Malbec, especially, is noteworthy here. Malbec is a blending grape in France that got turned into a major grape in Argentina and Chile -- unfortunately, for many years the South American Malbecs are absolutely horrible -- more useful for cleaning your carbeurator than for drinking. Lately, though, thanks to UC Davis (California) teaching the world how to develop good grapes in record time, there are Argentinian Malbecs that will knock your socks off, and stand up to the best California Cabernets you've ever tasted. Unhappily, they know what they've got, and they charge high prices for it: My favorite, Bodega Catena Zapata's Catena Alta Malbec 2002, Mendoza, Estate wine -- a fat and ferocious wine so dark it's almost black, and with so much body it's probably bottled under pressure - costs $55 a bottle. Urk! There are more competitive but much more affordable Malbecs coming to market, so keep an eye on your SavvyTaste profiles.

A SavvyTaste Wine Guide: All About Big Red Wines [Mac McCarthy]

Here is some general guidance to the world of Big Reds. If you love big, intense red wines, read on!

Big Reds are dense, highly "extracted," meaning intensely flavored, often "jammy" to the point of seeming like liquid jam, with some deep sweet undertone--not like cheap sweet white zin, mind you, but a sweet note you'll never forget!

The main Big Red Wines are:


Zinfandel is the Original. Zins are capable of being very big, and Rosenblum makes some of the biggest. It has something to do with its being a grape that ripens late in the season, and by the time its ready to pick it's a lot riper and thus fuller of flavor and sugar than many other grape types. That much sugar results in a high-alcohol wine -- I don't notice it because my taste buds are shot at my age, but some find these style wines too "hot" or alcoholic for them.

Rosenblum is one of the leaders in the ZAP movement (Zinfandel Appreciators and Producers) that over the past fifteen years has rescued Zinfandel from its reputation ruined by White Zin. Rosenblum makes some of the very biggest Zins in the world.

Rockpile Road is an actual place, near Napa Valley, that produces some of the most amazingly dense, fruit-forward, jammy, sweet grapes in the world. I think it's Rosenblum's best Zin. Other winemakers get great zins from Rockpile too, and another winemaker produces a Syrah from Rockpile Road and it, too, is dense and sweet. It's my overall favorite.

Lyons is another big boy, and it never disappoints me. It's fullbodied and rounded. And Carla's is one of Rosenblum's wines with a woman grower's name on it (along with Annette's and Maggie's), leading to the rule: If it's a Rosenblum named after a woman, it's a great wine! Carla's is more approachable than Rockpile, so people who don't necessarily like really big wines can still drink it.

Other top-drawer, gigantic Rosenblum Zins include Cullinane, Monte Rosso, and Snow's Lake--which when I had a bottle recently made me wonder if it was not maybe even better than the Rockpile--which I would have thought impossible to achieve!

Other heavy-duty wineries making great Zins are JC Cellars, Dashe Cellars, D-Cubed of Calistoga, Five Vintners, R&B Cellars "Swingsville," Red Skye, Villa Toscano, and Wood Family.

Also generally good are Zins from winemakers Cline, Concannon, Franus, Galleron, Inspiration, and Makor.

Problem: Many of these wines are not widely available outside California. Partly this is because they don't make enough of them, partly it's because in the rest of the country there's still that weird idea that Zin means White Zin, so it's hard to make people understand that nothing could be more different from a white Zin than a red Zin! (There really are huge advantages living in California if you love wine.)

There are also a few Zins made in a lighter style, less intense, but also easier and more approachable for those who haven't gotten the hang of gigantic reds. Even Rosenblum makes one, its "Cuvee" Zinfandel. 7 Deadly Zins, despite its ripsnortin' name, is a nice mild-style wine that's easy to drink and easy to like. Some Zins from Napa Valley are made "Bordeaux" style, or less intense. Give them a try.

Oddly enough, a strange rule of thumb seems to have arisen in the Zin world, as the marketing people have latched onto its growing popularity: Knowing early-adopter Zin lovers are smitten with the big, brutal intensity of Zins, they'll take minor wineries with mild Zins and slap fierce-souding labels on them. So the rule becomes: The more ferocious the name of the Zin, the milder it actually tastes.

So the 7 Deadly Zins, above, which is a tasty wine, is not however a big fat Zin; it's an easy-drinking, quite tasty one though. Others include Earthquake Zin and Cardinal Zin (get it? great label, too!). These are not the big, chewy, aggressive Zins you might be lured into thinking by those nifty labels. Still, they are drinkable, usually. Just don't think you're buying Big Red.

Syrah is one of those grapes that can be made in any style, from very mild, to ferocious enough to go toe-to-toe with Zin. Personally I like the super-big California Syrahs; others like the mild French Syrahs made where the summers are too short to make a big one, so they blend it with several other grapes to make red Rhone wines (which are in the Light Reds category).

Good California makers of big Syrahs include Rosenblum (England Shaw, and Rockpile Syrah), JC Cellars (especially their Rockpile Road Syrah) and Lost Canyon Winery of Oakland, Wood Family of Livermore, Leal, Nickle & Nickle, Qupe (whose Syrahs are milder but quite tasty), R&B Cellars, and a Berkeley winery with the Japanese-sounding name San Sakana. The growing interest in Syrahs is producing more choices with every passing year; the variety of styles makes testing this grape a fun thing.

Petite Syrah, an entirely different grape unrelated to Syrah, comes in wildly varied taste styles, so it requires trial and error. Some of them are huge. I find a bitter note in many that puts me off, but others are terrific. Longevity makes a very drinkable Petit Syrah.

Cabernet is the original Big Red Wine--though there are certainly lots thin Cabs out there. Worse, the longstanding reputation of Cabs as The Serious Wine (from Napa and as the basic wine in certain Bordeaux) means you will find many Cabs are overpriced for what you taste, while the cheap ones just taste cheap. You can just let somebody else buy the Cabs for your tastings until you find one you like. Or you can use the SavvyTaste Find a Wine system to figure out which Cabs match your taste preferences (for big or for light).

Reds made in Sicily can be wonderfully brutal. They have a grape called, appropriately, Primitivo, that will remind you a lot of Zinfandel, for all the right reasons. Prices aren't as low as you'd expect, though. But if somebody is serving a Primitivo, your big-red-loving eyes should light up; make sure you're in the front of the line.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The NYTimes is a Freakin' Idiot!

Hundreds and hundreds of peer-reviewed studies published in the world's top scientific and medical publications find that there is very, very little difference between wine, beer and spirits when consumed:

  • in moderation
  • with food.


Wine's biggest advantage is the way it is consumed.

There are probably some small, additional benefits to wine from its various organic compounds. But this NYTimes piece is simply a product of scientific ignorance ... and a lot of PR people from Welch's Grape Juice and your local NeoProhibitionist.

You can find out the scientific facts here:The French Paradox And Beyond.

September 23, 2008

The Claim: Grape Juice Has the Same Benefits as Red Wine


By now the cardiovascular benefits of a daily glass of wine are well known. But many teetotalers wonder whether they can reap the same rewards from wine’s unfermented sibling, or are they simply left out altogether.

Grape juice may not provide much buzz, but you can still toast to good health when it comes to its ability to avert heart disease. Alcohol in moderation can relax blood vessels and increase levels of HDL, the “good” cholesterol. But the substances believed to provide much of red wine’s heart benefits — resveratrol and flavonoids — are also found in grape juice, especially the variety made from red and dark purple Concord grapes.

Independent studies have found that like alcohol, grape juice can reduce the risk of blood clots and prevent LDL (“bad” cholesterol) from sticking to coronary arteries, among other cardiac benefits. One, conducted by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and published in the journal Circulation, looked at the effects of two servings of Concord grape juice a day in 15 people with coronary artery disease. After two weeks, the subjects had improved blood flow and reduced oxidation of LDL. Oxidized LDL can damage arteries.

Other studies in humans and animals, including one last year in the journal Atherosclerosis, have shown that daily consumption may lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. But beware: some varieties of juice have sugar and artificial ingredients.


Studies suggest that some kinds of grape juice may provide the cardiac benefits of red wine.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Livermore (CA) Wine Fest—Getting Stingy! But I Found a Good New Winemaker! [Mac McCarthy]

For the third year, I drove a short distance over the hill to the 27th Annual Livermore Valley Harvest Wine Celebration the first week of September 2008, to enjoy some fine wines from an overlooked gem of a wine area in California.

(If you're visiting Northern California and want to see the wine country, skip Napa, which is crowded and overpriced, and skip Sonoma, which is much nicer but a bit of a drive from San Francisco – instead, try Livermore, in the East Bay – 43 wineries as last count, and every one a gem!)

You pay one price for two days (about $50), park your car, and take the busses along some of the six routes that zigzag through the Valley. That way you don't have to decipher the map, nor worry about driving after drinking (until it's time to go home, of course!).

But I Do Have a Complaint!

As in the past, the wineries pour you some wine tastes, while musicians play, and various booths tempt you with crafts and food. You get three or so wines to taste at each winery – and then there's the Special wines, usually inside the barn, for access to which you have to pay an extra fee, usually about $10.

This isn't so bad because you can taste many yummy wines for your initial fee, and don't have to pay extra for the good stuff (though it certainly is good stuff). The problem is that THIS year they've gotten a little too cute for their own good – most of the wineries have cut way back on the free tastes, and are pushing instead to have you spend extra for the special stuff.

Concannon, for example, had only two wines out front; Retzlaff, a fine winery, had only *one*! A good one, but still... ONE wine on offer! Red Feather had, I think, two – one was a very interesting strawberry-flavored sparkling wine. Of the wineries I visited, only Thomas Coyne had a decent cross-section of its wines for us.

It must get expensive to participate in this event, and none of the money we pay for the event goes to the wineries themselves, I believe – so I understand that the wineries would like to make a buck from all those people flocking in. But think about it from our perspective: We already paid $50 to attend the event. If we pay another $10 for each of the five or six wineries we will be visiting – the day will cost us $100 – each, double that if we're a couple!

I'm sorry, but that's Napa Valley-level gouging, and I'm seriously wondering if this previously wonderful and eye-opening event will be worth going to next year.

(For pictures of the wineries, in case you ever plan to visit—and most don't charge during regular visitor's hours—go to

Best New Winery in Livermore, CA: "Longevity!" [Mac McCarthy]

A relatively new winery, and one I'd never heard of, had a small table at the Livermore festival in the tent where they put the smaller, newer vintners: Longevity, a play on the name of Phil and Debra Long, the winemakers. They had by far the most impressive wines I tasted that day.

They specialize in dense but incredibly smooth reds (their Chardonnay wasn't too doggone bad either). The Cabernet was impressive – mouthfilling, smooth and edgeless, with a long, long finish. They also make a Bordeaux-style blend that is very successful. I ended up buying an assortment of their wines – and to emphasize how good their wines are, these are the only wines I bought that day! I could not recommend too strongly that you go out of your way to find and try Longevity wines!

For information about the winery, go to this Danville information page: , which gives the address and the tasting hours (weekends noon to 5pm). See if you can get them to ship you a bottle or two. Their wines are priced in the $35 range. Worth double that, easily.

Sometimes It's Tough to Be A Wine Taster! [Mac McCarthy]

One thing I love about working on the SavvyTaste project is that it gives me yet another excuse to taste wines, go to wine tastings, go to dinner-wine pairings, go to wine festivals, and so on. Man, tough job!

But I keep running into a little problem: So many of the wines I'm offered are made in very small lots, or by very small wineries. I put my tasting notes into – but seriously, how will they help the average wine drinker who's looking for a good wine to buy for this weekend? Maybe you'll see one of these wines on the results page and click on it to find out more, and discover "Only 200 cases made," or "Available only at the winery." So how does that help you?

It doesn't. Which is frustrating, because the majority of winetasting events in the San Francisco/Northern California area are of just such wines – small or new high-end wineries trying to generate interest in their wines, or larger established wineries trying to generate interest in their more expensive labels.

The other week, for example, at a wine pairing Taster's Guild event (Taster's Guild is wonderful, by the way, see if there's one near where you live, you've never tasted such wonderful wines and wonderful foods in your life!) – the winery being featured brought a dozen superb wines, and with every wine, the salesperson said "200 cases" or "400 cases of this wine made." Of one wine, just to rub it in, she said "There were 200 cases of this wine made, but only 50 are left."

I sighed and put down my pen. No point doing a taste profile of these, nobody's going to be able to find them in their wine shop, let alone in their supermarket or liquor store!

At the Livermore Harvest Wine Festival in September 2008, I made a point to stop in at Concannon, one of the larger wineries in the valley, so I would be able to taste and rate some wines that might actually show up on the shelves of your local store – and they were only serving one wine, and that one was labeled "LR" – for Limited Release – in fact, it was only available for purchase at the winery!


So to get into the SavvyTaste database some wines that might actually be USEFUL to you, we've started holding SavvyTaste Taste Days – an afternoon where we get together with a dozen local wineloving friends and taste some popular, widely available wines, then put them in the database.

We've had two of these events so far and taste-tested 22 wines – these are wines which are available across the country, in enough volume that most people will be able to find it locally no matter where they live in the U.S., and at prices you can actually afford to buy them without draining your bank account!

It's been a lot of fun, and it also helps me because we're drinking wines that a lot of regular people drink, which helps me keep my taste buds in line after all these high-end tastings of limited-release that cost an arm and a leg – if you can even find them to blow all your money on!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Genetics and Peer Pressure: Twin Achilles Heels for Wine Critics

I like to drink wine. The fact that you’re here probably means that you do too. But, like many people, I find it frustrating to find wines I really like.

You probably know the problems:

The 100-point scales aren’t very helpful. You uncork an expensive wine rated 93 only to find it’s not much better than the bargain bottle rated 83. And maybe worse than that really cheap wine which no critic at all has reviewed. The 100-point scale deludes shoppers into believing in a level of accuracy and precision that does not exist.

Then there are the critics and judges. I’ve been one and I can tell you that every one I have ever met tries to do a good job.

But three factors work against their reviews being helpful to you

1. DNA -- Your palate is genetically your own. Everyone tastes the same things differently.
2. Herd mentality -- This is why the most highly rated (and expensive) wines tend to taste alike.
3. Gobbledygook – Descriptions of “flinty overtones of dried cranberries in a dusty tobacco pouch” are a good test of the wine writer’s vocabulary, but meaninglessly overwrought prose for the wine consumer.
4. Too any wines -- most wines never get reviewed. That includes some of the tastiest, best values.

These are the reasons that Mac McCarthy and I have started SavvyTaste -- with the able programming of Code Ninja William Perdue.

I'll talk more about numbers 3 and 4 in a future post. But in this one, I'd like to share a brief excerpt from one of the most remarkable books I have read this summer.

The book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer, is not a wine book. Lehrer, however, has written a captivating work, creating a literary, musical, artistic and culinary framework for neuroscience.

I loved every bit of the book, although I did love the chapters dealing with Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf somewhat less.

The book's relevance to wine comes in a fascinating chapter on taste and smell -- as told through the life of renowned chef Auguste Escoffier. I highly recommend this book.

The excerpted from that chapter, below, offers some relevant observations on the intractable problems faced by critics and the consumers who rely upon them.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist excerpts from pages 68-71:

"Our sense of smell is particularly vulnerable to ... outside influence.

"Since many odors differ only in their molecular details -- and we long ago traded away nasal acuity for better color vision -- the brain is often forced to decipher smells based upon non-olfactory information. Parmesan cheese and vomit, for example, are both full of butyric add, which has a pungent top note and a sweetish linger.

"As a result, blindfolded subjects in experiments will often confuse the two stimuli. In real life, however, such sensory mistakes are extremely rare. Common sense overrules our actual senses.

"What we taste is ultimately an idea, and that our sensations are strongly influenced by their context. But it’s our neurological reality. When we sense something, that sensation is immediately analyzed in terms of previous experiences Thus, what we think we are tasting is only partially about the matter in the mouth. Equally important is the sum of past experiences enclosed within the brain, for these memories are what frame the sensation.

"The most persuasive proof of this concept comes from the world of wine. In 2001. Frederic Brochet, of the university of Bordeaux, conducted two separate and very mischievous experiments. In the first test, Brochet invited fifty-seven wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn’t stop the experts from describing the “red” wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its “jamminess” while another enjoyed its “crushed red fruit.”

"Not a single one noticed it was a white wine.

"The second test Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle was labeled as a fancy Grand Cru. The other bottle was labeled as an ordinary vin du table [ordinary table wine]. Despite the fact that they were served the exact same wine, the experts gave the differently labeled bottles nearly opposite ratings.

"The “Grand Cru” was ‘agreeable, woody, complex, balanced, and rounded;’ while the “vin du table” was “weak, short, light, flat, and faulty?’ Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking while only twelve said the cheap wine was.

"What these wine experiments illuminate is the omnipresence of subjectivity. When we take a sip of wine, we don’t taste the wine first and the cheapness or redness second. We taste everything all at once, in a single gulp of this-wine-is-red, or this wine is expensive.

"As a result, the wine experts sincerely believed that the white wine was red, and that the cheap wine was expensive. And while they were pitifully mistaken, the mistakes weren’t entirely their fault. Our human brain has been designed to believe itself, wired so that prejudices feel like facts, opinions are indistinguishable from the actual sensation.

"If we think a wine is cheap, it will taste cheap. And if we think we are tasting a Grand Cru, then we will taste a Grand Cru. Our senses are vague in their instructions, and we parse their suggestions based on whatever other knowledge we can summon to the surface. As Brochet himself notes, our expectations of what the wine will taste like “can be much more powerful in determining how you taste a wine than the actual physical qualities of the wine itself.”

"The fallibility of our senses — their susceptibility to our mental biases and beliefs — poses a special problem for neural reduction-ism. The taste of a wine, like the taste of everything, is not merely the sum of our inputs and cannot be solved in a bottom-up fashion. It cannot be deduced by beginning with our simplest sensations and extrapolating upward.

"This is because what we experience is not what we sense, Rather, experience is what happens when sensations are interpreted by the subjective brain, which brings to the moment its entire library of personal memories and idiosyncratic desires.

"But even if we could taste the wine as it is (without the distortions of scheming subjectivity) we would still all experience a different wine. Science has long known that our sensitivity to certain smells and tastes varies as much as 1,000 percent between individuals.

"On a cellular level, this is because the human olfactory cortex, the part of the brain that interprets information from the tongue and nose, is extremely plastic, free to arrange itself around the content of our individual experiences. Long after our other senses have settled down, our senses of taste and smell remain in total neural flux.

"Nature designed us this way: the olfactory bulb is full of new neurons. Fresh cells are constantly being born, and the survival of these cells depends upon their activity. Only cells that respond to the smells and tastes we are actually exposed to survive. Everything else withers away. The end result is that our brains begin to reflect what we eat."

By aggregating reviews of the same wine by scores or hundreds of people, we hope that SavvyTaste can paint a better taste picture for the community. We also hope to connect people who share the same taste preferences so they can rely upon each other.

Like any community endeavor, success for everyone depends upon some of us taking five minutes here and there to rate a wine.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

" 'Hoax' on the Wine Spectator" [Mac McCarthy]

So did you see the short piece in the Wine section of the Chron Aug 22/08? " 'Hoax' on the Wine Spectator" is the hed. Seems some guy invented a fake restaurant, Osteria L'Intrepido, supposedly in Milan, and submitted its fake wine list to the WS, along with his obligatory $250 fee, and the WS promptly awarded him one of their (apparently widely distributed) Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence.

The magazine says they checked and found a phone with an answering machine (that he had set up) and (apparently fake) online posts on Chowhound, so they thought it was a real restaurant - and anyway, they were rating the quality of the wine list, not the service or food or anything....

Problem with that excuse is that the prankster, one Robin Goldstein, included on the list of 150 Italian wines a "reserve" list that included 15 wines that had previusly been 'savaged' by the WS critics - including a 1990 GD Vajra Barolo that got a nearly record low score of 64 points....

The Chron author, Jon Bonne, goes on to point out the conflict of interest: "At $250 apiece, the 4,128 restaurants in the 2008 list would have grossed more than $1 million" for the magazine. "The program remains a major income source for the magazine's publisher, M. Shanken COmmunications," he notes. "Two-thirds of all submissions win an award."

Har har.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Boony Doon Winery survives Bonny Doon fire... [Mac McCarthy]

The BonnyDoon wine company sent email to its members today assuring them that the tasting room has come through the Bonny Doon fire unscathed, fortunately.

Bonny Doon is the name of a tiny Santa Cruz Mountains community where the winery has its tasting room. Grapes are provided by growers elsewhere, also not affected by the local fire, and the wine is made in Santa Cruz. The tasting room will reopen as soon as the roads are cleared once the fire is completely contained, the winery said.

Bonny Doon is noted for its affordable offbeat wines, offbeat wine names, and arch label descriptions penned by its offbeat owner, Randel Graham, who calls himself The Original Rhone Derranger. Popular Bonny Doon wines include Le Cigare Volante (the flying cigar--the French term for a flying saucer) line of Rhone-style blends, Big House Red, and Ca' del Solo Italian-style wines, as well as apple-pear brandy, flavored eau de vie, and orange muscat.

News reports say that patrons seemed reluctant to leave the tasting room despite the growing volume of smoke drifting over the facility. Those are either real wine lovers, or just nuts.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Selling the Cellar

Not surprisingly, all the wine industry's trade publications conveniently omitted the negative news in the report. The wine trade pubs have created an information vacuum that favors only those interests who benefit financially from keeping others in the dark.

Those who benefit are the same pump-and-dump artists who benefited from telling everyone that there was no glut ... right before the tsunami of wine washed over them.

From Forbes Magazine
Heads Up
Selling the Cellar
Dirk Smillie 06.02.08

Jeffrey Hopmayer is prowling California's wine country. This spring he plied six winery owners with good wine over dinner, then bid for each of their properties. Hopmayer, chief executive of privately held Sapphire Brands of Nashville, Tenn., says he expects to make ten such acquisitions over the next five years.

This is a good time to buy, since the overbuilt Napa and Sonoma valleys could soon be in the midst of a wine bust. That's the conclusion of a January 2008 report by Silicon Valley Bank in Santa Rosa, Calif. Its survey of vineyard owners found that 51% of family-controlled wineries in California, Oregon and Washington will shift ownership in the next ten years. The study predicts that 1,020 wineries industrywide may change hands over this period, bringing new owners to 20% of all U.S. wineries, which total 5,000.

The expected selloff is driven by aging vineyard owners bedeviled by how drastically difficult it is to make a buck in the new landscape of winemaking. "The wine business today is a funnel," says Robert Nicholson, head of International Wine Associates, a Healdsburg, Calif. corporate finance outfit specializing in vineyard buyouts. At the top are those 5,000 wineries, which produce 7,000 brands. These labels compete with one another, plus foreign imports, at the bottom of the funnel, where they must fit through a bottleneck of 450 distributors who decide which brands get shelf space. In the past decade the number of brands has nearly doubled, while the number of distributors has been cut in half. Result: Family-owned microbrands have seen their pricing power and ability to demand shelf space trickle away.

That's why Hopmayer says he needs a production level of at least 1 million cases a year to command leverage with distributors (his current wine properties yield 500,000 cases a year). Bigger buyers like Constellation (fiscal 2008 sales: $3.8 billion) and Brown-Forman ($2.2 billion) will also be looking for scale. In the coming selloff only wineries that offer a full portfolio of varietals--from pinot noir to cabernet franc--in quantities of at least 100,000 cases annually will be attractive acquisitions (see table).

Robert McMillan, author of the bank's report, points to another reason family-owned vineyards may be induced to sell: escalating land values. When a Napa Valley acre went for $25,000 fifteen years ago, you had to sell wine at $25 to make a good return. Now, with land worth $250,000, how many wineries can produce stuff good enough to sell at $50 a bottle?

Still, there's hope for the little guy. Squeezed out of mass distribution, boutique producers are relying on wine clubs, tasting rooms and direct-to-consumer sales. Bypassing wholesalers has problems, too. A winery shipping a single case to each state that allows direct sales (there are now 37) would have to submit 725 forms to conform with sales, excise and state income taxes. That could drive anybody to drink.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

WTF! Dumb Calif Bureaucrats Turn Amateur Winemakers into Criminals

Yes, I know that "dumb bureaucrat" is redundant. But, just in the nick of time the California state government has arrived and they're here to save us from ourselves. Again.

By declaring that competitions among home winemakers are illegal.

This story from The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat (the only real newspaper in Sonoma County) says it all.

Read it.


Then let's ALL have a tasting of homemade wines at our homes. We need to set a date and then notify the bureaucrats. Let them come after ALL of us. Would make for some great YouTube Vids.

Home wine ruling a shock
Organizers and others stunned that state ABC would say events like Harvest Fair are against the law


Home winemaking competitions abound in California.

From the Sonoma County Harvest Fair in the heart of Wine Country to the massive California Exposition & State Fair in Sacramento, fairs around the state recognize the skills of thousands of amateur vintners.

Numerous private winemaking clubs also hold regular contests so their members can see how their vintages stack up.

But they all have one thing in common: They're all illegal.

That's what state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control officials have told an Illinois man who wants to hold a home winemaking competition in Santa Rosa this summer.

"We told them it's illegal," said Matthew Seck, chief of the trade enforcement division of the ABC.

State law creates an exemption from California's alcohol licensing laws for home winemakers who produce up to 200 gallons a year -- but only if they are making it for their own consumption.

The exemption was essentially California's way, after regulation of alcohol fell to the states following the repeal of Prohibition, of continuing the federal exemption for home winemaking.

The problem is that the exemption is a very narrow one that does not allow people to share the wine they produce with others or remove it from the place where it was produced, Seck said.

Word of the state's position spread quickly though the ranks of the passionate home winemaking community, particularly in California, where hobbyists have access to some of the best grapes in the world and craft wines in garages, basements and barns.

"It doesn't make sense to most people, but that's what the law is," Seck said.

Seck declined to say what type of enforcement the agency might take against an amateur wine judging event. He said he was unaware such events take place at county and state fairs, and had never received a complaint against one.

But when the ABC receives a complaint or becomes aware that laws are being broken, it has an obligation to act, he said.

Threat of prosecution

In an e-mail to the Santa Rosa event's organizer, Joel Sommer, ABC investigator David Wright was clear there could be consequences.

"If you decide to hold your event please be advised that it will be without Department consent or authorization and could result in criminal prosecution," Wright wrote.

That got Sommer's attention.

The resident of St. Libory, Ill., and a self-described "Web entrepreneur" operates a winemaking Web site called WinePress. He was shocked by the response and baffled given the proliferation of other such events across the state, including the state's own fair.

"I was just trying to do everything legally," he said.

Sommer has held home winemaking competitions in Denver, Baltimore and St. Louis in recent years, and was looking forward to holding his first event in California. But the legal opinion threw his whole plan into question.

Many visitors to Sommer's Web site rallied to his defense, digging up legal research and offering support and strategic suggestions. Many suggested the ABC official was off base or overstepping his authority.

"This guy is drunk on power," wrote one poster.

The ABC's stance flies in the face of reality and years of history and tradition, said Nancy Vineyard, co-owner of The Beverage People, a home brewing and winemaking supply company in Santa Rosa.

"If that's the case, then just about every county fair and club across the state is breaking the law," she said.

"I've never heard anything like it," said Bob Bennett, an avid home winemaker from Healdsburg and head of the Garage Enologists of North County. "I can't think of why he's any different than the other (competitions)."

Such competitions are crucial for home winemakers to get feedback on their wines from experts in the field, said Fred Millar, president of the Sacramento Home Winemakers. He noted that many of the best professional winemakers started out as hobbyists.

"I'm really concerned. I think this could have a chilling effect on the whole industry," he said.

Others suggested Sommer just ignore the ABC and hold his event as planned.

"It's silly and it's a technicality and nobody really cares," said Andy Coradeschi, former president of Cellarmasters Home Wine Club of Los Angeles, which has held a competition for 34 years and last year judged about 220 wines.

Help from legislators

Seck declined to say whether county fairs or the upcoming California Exposition & State Fair's Home Wine competition would violate the law. He said he was unaware they held home winemaking events.

But legislators are moving quickly to make sure the flap doesn't interfere with the summer fair season. After receiving calls from home winemakers across California, state Sen. Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, is proposing urgency legislation to fix the problem.

"I think there is a concern that some of these events may have to cease without this kind of bill," Wiggins spokesman David Miller said.

Next week, Wiggins will introduce a bill, SB 607, that would add home winemakers to a section of the law giving greater latitude to home brewers. Current law for beer allows "personal or family use" and lets home brewers remove their brews "from the premises where manufactured for use in competition at organized affairs, exhibitions or competitions."

Adding wine to this section should resolve the issue, Miller said.

As "urgency" legislation, the bill requires a two-thirds majority to pass, but would take effect immediately upon the governor's signature.

Despite the warnings from the ABC earlier this year, Sommer remained undeterred and continues planning his event. The fact that he has already paid deposits to the Flamingo Conference Resort & Spa has motivated him, too.

He continues to "move full speed ahead" for the event, called WineFest, and hopes to get 150 people to attend.

The threat of prosecution initially made some posters on Sommer's site question whether attending was worth the risk. But most saw the threat as hollow and the risk minimal, he said.

"If they make an example out of me, fine, but at least we get the law changed," he said.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Review: Rosenblum Snow's Lake Zinfandel 2004 [Mac McCarthy]

My rating: 96 out of 100

This is one of the biggest, boldest of Rosenblum's big, bold Zinfandels, and from a relatively new source for the winery. (2004 was the first vintage from Snows Lake for Rosenblum).

Tasted in April 2008, this wine was rated best of 17 Rosenblum wines tasted that evening by 18 members of the SF East Bay California tasting group The Pompous Twits. The 2004 Rockpile Road Zinfandel (Rosenblum's biggest Zin of all) was initially ranked best, but the Snows Lake, it turns out, opened up while we were drinking it; and at the suggestion of member Tom TIlley, we retasted it half an hour later--and it indeed had opened up quite a bit and now edge out the Rockpile.

Compared to the Rockpile, it was as big and jammy and dense and intense, and as high in alcohol (16%+), but it had a subtlety and nuance that put it in front -- I know subtlety and nuance aren't terms commonly used with big-style Zins, which made this a wonderful surprise.

Tilley suggests that this wine still have some aging to do. We have among us 5 bottles, so we will taste a bottle each spring for the next few years to see how it develops!

This wine cost just under $30 when bought by the case as a futures; current vintages list at $35. See

Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zinfandel 2004--One of the Very Best! [Mac McCarthy]

My Rating: 96 out of 100.

Rosenblum Cellars of Alameda, California is most famous for its big, bold Zinfandels--its pioneering founder, Kent Rosenblum, led a coalition of vintners for twenty years to establish Zinfandel as capable of producing a quality wine--contrary to the sorry memory of the student wine White Zinfandel. There are now more than 300 makers of fine Zinfandel in the United States thanks to his efforts.

Rosenblum's favored style for its Zinfandels (and many of its other red wines) is fruit-forward, even jammy; intense and dense with flavor, otherwise known as "highly extracted," a deep color so dark you could sign the Declaration of Independance with it, and high in alcohol (this one is 16.5%). Kent likes to leave the grapes on the vine as long as possible, picking just days before the fall rains comes -- the result is an intensity of flavor that can be rivalled only by the most aggressive Syrahs made in California.

Of all Rosenblum's Zinfandels, those from the vineyards of Rockpile Road, on the side of a steep hill in the famed Dry Creek Valley area of Northern California, produce the most intense, biggest, and boldest. Only Rosenblum's Snows Lake Zinfandel, or its rare Rosenblum Cullinane Vineyard, can rival it. It regularly sells out in futures, so it's hard to come by. If you ever see a bottle on a retail outlet, snap it up.

I bought this as a case of futures at a discount price of $28. Current releases sell for $45 if available.

Bottom line: This is one of the finest wines made, and if you are a Zin enthusiast, no Zinfandel can surpass it.

If you are more accustomed to light, food-friendly reds, this wine will knock your taste buds sideways; it takes getting used to. (I recommend in that case that you try Rosenblum's Cuvee Zinfandel, which is Zin with trainer wheels--I mean, it's a light, approachable, very tasty but not at all nasty, Zin; even I like it.)

Friday, May 2, 2008

Book review: 'Wine Across America'--Not a Road Trip Book!

"Wine Across America: A Photographic Road Trip" by Daphne Larkin

Somehow I didn't fully grasp from the Web page that this is a coffee-table picture book of photos of wineries across America--it is NOT a guide or travelogue you could use to visit wineries as you drive across country, which is what I wanted. I allowed myself to be misled by the words "Road Trip" in the title. It's not even a narrative of the authors' driving around the country visiting wineries!

In fact, you can't *use* this book at all, you can only look at the pictures, because there is no map of where these wineries are, or addresses to find them. Not what I had in mind, and this mismatch is why I give it a low score. (As a picture book, though, it's pretty.)

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Robert Parker, Emperor of Wine: Book review

This is the full version of a review which appeared in edited form in Barrons, August 8, 2005

It’s hard to divine who gets the French in a bigger bipolar snit: President George Bush or wine’s über-critic Robert Parker whose newsletter, The Wine Advocate, can make or break a wine, a vintage, a winery or an entire region.

In The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, author Elin McCoy offers us a vivid picture of Gallic pride and intensity following Parker’s description of the 1981 Château Cheval Blanc barrel samples as “’disappointing’ and ‘mediocre.’” Château owner Jacque Hèbrard tracked down Parker and persuaded him to re-taste the wine.

When Parker arrived and knocked on the door, “Hèbrard opened it and out tore a small dog, a miniature schnauzer which made straight for Parker’s calf and bit down ferociously. Hèbrard…stood impassively by the door, watching the astonished wine critic shaking his leg vigorously to get the dog to let go.”

McCoy notes that Hèbrard did nothing to stop the dog’s attack, and after Parker shook off the dog by himself, Hèbrard led Parker – pants ripped and leg bleeding – to the château’s office. “Instead of getting the bandage Parker requested,” McCoy writes, “Hèbrard rummaged around for his copy of The Wine Advocate, which he angrily threw on the desk, saying, ‘This is what you wrote about my wine!’”

One can suppose Parker should grateful that Hèbrard had a mop dog rather than a pit bull.
McCoy’s book makes it clear that Hèbrard acted out what many others on the short end of Parker’s tasting stick had only dreamed of.

On the other side of the equation are those like Napa Valley’s Patz & Hall Winery who have canonized Parker. “In April 1991, they had been desperate and depressed. Their 1989 wines had flopped. They were running out of money and after a huge tax bill, they had $600 in their bank account and wine in barrels that they could not afford to bottle.”

Then came a Parker miracle worthy of sainthood: Parker gave them a 92 rating. The wine sold out. They were instantly in the black. A thorough reading of McCoy’s book shows that the number of these “miracles” far exceeds those required by Papal commissions for Catholic sainthood.

Parker is a devil; Parker is an angel: Few people in the wine business, media or among wine fanatics have a neutral opinion. McCoy offers us the best portrait yet of the man, his sins, virtues, deeds which form the foundation of this intense polarization and of his success.

The French are bipolar about him because he single-handedly turned consumers against mediocre wines from over-rated châteaux run by the French equivalent of decadent Faulknerian aristocracy whose only claim to greatness was in faded memories of the past and not in the bottle. On the other hand, He was awarded the French Legion of Honor mostly for helping revitalize the sales of Bordeaux clarets in the 1980s.

But beyond the French who are bipolar about so many things from war to Big Macs, McCoy makes clear that Parker's invention of the 100-point system is the single largest bone of contention. She expresses the view of many – even those who are Parkerites – when she writes, "I find scoring wine with numbers a joke in scientific terms and misleading in thinking about either the quality or pleasure of wine, something that turns wine into a contest instead of an experience."

Yes, it is the worst system in the world – except for all the rest. The fact is clear that the system would never have caught on had it not struck a chord with the consumer. McCoy is also correct that a single number is not the wine and that using the 100-point system implies a precision that does not exist. However, single numbers can – and do – affect the lives of people. Consider SAT test scores, FICO credit ratings, The Dow Industrials and others. If there is a better way -- such as the one developed by Master Sommelier Peter Granoff for the original Virtual Vineyards web site -- then the wine industry should push for its adoption.

Following close on the heels of the 100-point system is criticism that Parker's palate is too personal, that he likes big, fruity wines and ignores other styles which others may prefer. This, along with Parker's influence, has resulted, McCoy writes, in vintners making their wine to suit Parker's palate and that, in turn, as produced a global Americanization of wine.

McCoy accomplishes a lot with this book, but begins Emperor with a particularly annoying and unnecessary set of snobbish errors when she describes Parker’s secondary education: “While most of the students at this ‘redneck’ high school were 4-H club future farmers, Parker was in the college-bound program for smart kids….”

McCoy’s probably unaware that one needs to be smart to be a farmer and that today most have college degrees. Further, she’d be shocked – as do those “Sideways” urbanites who buy wineries and have to get mud on their Pradas – that wine at its core is farming and that everyone from those who prune the vines all the way to the winemaker need to be smart, very, very smart. The final irony in this line is McCoy’s noting that Parker’s first and only job as a lawyer was for the Farm Credit Bank in Baltimore. As it happens, Farm Credit is a major – perhaps the largest – financier of vineyards and wineries in California. One should never forget that one is only as far away from farming as one's next meal.

Despite these and a scattering of other wine-snobbisms, this is a very solid book, well-written, copiously documented and presenting a well-rounded picture of the man so many love to hate and hate to love. I've been involved in the wine industry on and off for nearly 25 years as an importer, publisher, journalist, book author and judge at international wine competitions and found this a valuable, even-handed book which will offer ammunition to both poles in the debate.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

How Certain Wines Get Boring

I mentioned wine writer Craig Camp's article "Fear of Wine: 100 Points of Perfection," where he also complains about the trend of American winemakers (and, increasingly, international winemakers looking for export markets) to make their wines all taste alike.

This is true, and it will help explain an oddity about wines to you, the wine enthusiast. When you start enjoying wines, you likely drink a limited number of types, because that's what you liked. You drink Chards, or Cabs, or Pinots, or Australian Shirazes. And you look for more Chards, Cabs, or Pinots that taste similar to the other ones you liked.

Then one day you go to a winetasting event and try something unfamiliar; say, Petit Syrahs. You find, to your surprise, that each one you try tastes quite different from each other one you try. Brand X's PS has one kind of taste, Brand Y's PS tastes completely different. It's a puzzlement.

The reason simply is that most winemakers respond to their perceived markets. When a particular type of wine becomes popular, and sales go up, volume winemakers try to figure out what it is about that particular type of wine that drinkers are responding to. Is it the bright cherry notes? The sweet lingering aftertaste? The creamy oakiness? Then they start tuning their winemaking to imitate the tastes of the most popular wine of that type on the market.

Of course they would! The problem is, after a while, all the popularly-priced wines of that type taste more alike than different.

This happened first with Merlots, back in the 1980s. Merlots were the first "grown-up" red wine to gain popularity among the Boomers (like me). It can be light, approachable, easy to drink, yet with flavor enough for a real wine. And back then, the variety of styles of Merlots meant that each bottle you'd try from a different vintner would be a surprise as each vintner interpreted the Merlot style a bit differently. It was fun to drink Merlot!

Until everybody was drinking it. Wine growers put in thousands of acres more Merlot vines--often putting them on any open land, without regard to its suitability to that grape. As a result, a lot of simply bad Merlot crowded the market. At the same time, Merlot winemakers all headed in the same direction, producing uninspired, bland, plain, general-purpose Merlots intended to hit the middle of the market squarely on, as inoffensively as possible.

That's the kind of Merlot the character in Sideways is complaining about. Basically, they ruined Merlot for a generation. Now you can find good Merlots, but you have to know what you're looking for, and you'll pay a lot more than you used to: Geyser Peak, for example, makes a real Merlot, if you want to see what a real Merlot actually tastes like. But it costs around $30 a bottle.

Cabernets have been hit by this same flight-to-sameness syndrome, though not quite as badly because Cabs are difficult and expensive to grow, so they will never be the standard mass-market $10 bottle of wine (there are $10 Cabs but they are very uneven). But these days, you can pay $20, or $30, or $50 for a Cabernet and you'll be rolling the dice on whether you get a pretty nice bottle of wine, or an uninspired, insipid, bland red.

The Shirazes of Australia have been an enjoyable and fresh alternative for many years now; less than $10 gets you a nice fun wine, and every label makes it a bit different. This is the kind of fun wine that Merlots used to be decades ago. It amazes me, though, that the volume winemakers in Australia, like Yellow Tail and Rosemount, have managed to increase production to Gallo levels but haven't quite managed to lose the fun in their wines. God bless 'em!

If you really want to have fun with your wine these days, try Roses. Not White Zinfandel, mind you, but the countless types of Roses made in the US and in France, but not that easy to find, because White Zin ruined the idea of Rose for most Americans. You are going to have to trust me on this: White Zin is not the only way Rose can taste.

There are more different kinds of Roses than any other wine style, simply because you can make a Rose out of any red-skinned grape: There are the classic French dry Pinot Noire Roses, as well as Roses made from Zinfandel, from Merlot, from Cab, from Syrah and Shiraz, and Grenache, and everything else. And not only do each of these types of Rose taste different, but each winemaker makes his own Roses different from every other Rose maker. Reason: You can't really sell enough Rose in the U.S. to make it profitable, so most winemakers are making Rose as a labor of love, according to their own individual tastes, without trying to please some marketer's "definition."

I promise you, if you find a Rose tasting in your area, go--and you will have the most amazing, fun, varied, and astonishing wine drinking experience of your life. There will be plenty of them you won't like--and even more of them you will. Whether you like light or heavy, sweet or dry or something in between, fruity or flowery or neither -- you will find many Roses to please your surprised palate!

Try it -- and have some fun with your winetasting!

Why Are Some Wines So Heavy, and Other Wines So Light?

Wine writer Craig Camp, in his article "Fear of Wine: 100 Points of Perfection," complains about two problems in the wine business: First, that American wines tend to be heavy, high in alcohol, and intense in flavor, compared to European wines. And second, that American winemakers (and, increasingly, international winemakers looking for export markets) tend to develop their wines over time so that all their wines of a certain type taste like the same wines from all other producers -- so that we wine lovers end up losing out on the variety of styles, and of the different local "terroir" characteristics of the wines.

On the first point -- the tendency of American red wines to be "big" wines -- I think I have figured out why that is. The way we drink wines in the USA is very different from the way they drink wine in Europe, and the style of our wines reflects this perfectly. And not surprisingly.

I noticed this on a recent tour of Europe: The wines served at each dinner were very light, mild, and easy to drink. They weren't intense and strongly flavored. Now, I *like* intense wines; my favorites are big, fat Rosenblum Zinfandels. Yet I really enjoyed these light-styled and inexpensive Italian and French wines.

Why? Because I was drinking them over dinner. Not as a kind of cocktail, but as a *beverage*.

Whereas most commonly I drink wine back home at wine tastings, winery events, or in the evening after dinner.

Now think about this: If you are drinking wine with your dinner, you want a wine that isn't yelling at you while you're trying to eat. You don't want a big, extracted fruit bomb -- it's distracting. Instead, you want something that takes second place to the meal.

On the other hand, we Americans disproportionally drink our wines at tastings and events and wineries, and *there* it's the wine that's big and bold and dramatic that stands out--and that wins ribbons and scores of 94 and that we mention to our friends.

When the wine is the center of attention, it has to stand out. When the food is the center of attention, the wine has to step back.

So the winemakers of Europe play to the way their people drink their wine. And US winemakers do likewise, to the very different way their people drink their wine. Obviously. Well, obvious now that we think about it.

Of course, it helps that the weather in France is cooler (until global warming fully kicks in) than the weather in, say, California; it's hard to produce a big wine with many fewer days of heat and sun, so it's nice to be able to make a virtue of that necessity. Similarly, you'll notice that it's the Oregon and Washington State Pinot Noires that are most like their European counterparts--namely, light and mild and subtle--whereas California Pinots are often more dramatic; it's teh difference in the weather.

So who is right? Which is the better, or more sophisticated, or more refined style of wines? Neither, of course -- and both.

When we stopped by a winery in the Finger Lakes of New York last year, we were surprised at the American-grape varietels: They were very pale red instead of intensely colored, and light-drinking instead of big and fat. And yet they were absolutely delicious in their own way. And I say this as someone whose favorite wine is a Rockpile Road Zin.

All we American wine lovers need to realize is that there are these two styles and usage patterns. Once we grasp that, we can dial our wine style to what we're doing: If the wine is for winner, we can look for European-style food-friendly low-tannin, low-alcohol, mild wines made in the European style (even if they are Oregon or Long Island wines). And when we're having a wine occasion, we serve American-style own-reason-for-existence wines with punch and intense flavors. To each style its best use!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Moore's Law: Wine Price Versus Taste

A decade or more ago, I upset the hell out of a lot of people in the wine industry when one of my publications, Wine Business Monthly, published a study showing that the current use of the 100-point scale for rating wines, was statistically invalid.

In other words, the numbers that even the most experienced tasters gave a wine might as well have been pulled from a nether part of their anatomy as from their palates.

Not surprisingly, a recent Stanford study proving how the price of a wine affects the way people rate it, got short shrift from both the wine trade pub as well as the consumer geek-snob mags like the Wine Expectorator.

The general press had a hey-day with the results, but offered few details.

I'm working to obtain a copy of the actual study, until then, here are more details, courtesy of the Stanford News Service (the cartoon, above, is also from Stanford):

Price changes way people experience wine, study finds

In what will be music to the ears of marketers, the old adage that you get what you pay for really is true when it comes to that most ephemeral of products: bottled wine.

According to researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the California Institute of Technology, if a person is told he or she is tasting two different wines—and that one costs $5 and the other $45 when they are, in fact, the same wine—the part of the brain that experiences pleasure will become more active when the drinker thinks he or she is enjoying the more expensive vintage.

"What we document is that price is not just about inferences of quality, but it can actually affect real quality," said Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing who co-authored a paper titled "Marketing Actions Can Modulate Neural Representations of Experienced Pleasantness," published online Jan. 14 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "So, in essence, [price] is changing people's experiences with a product and, therefore, the outcomes from consuming this product."

Shiv, an expert in how emotion affects decision-making, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to conduct the study with co-authors Hilke Plassmann, a former Stanford postdoctoral researcher; Antonio Rangel, a former Stanford economist; and psychologist John O'Doherty. (Both Plassmann and Rangel are now at Caltech.) Although researchers have used fMRI scans in recent years to gauge brain activity, the study is one of the first to test subjects as they swallow liquid—in this case, wine—through a pump attached to their mouths, a tricky complication because the scanner requires people to lie very still as it measures blood flow in the brain.

According to Shiv, a basic assumption in economics is that a person's "experienced pleasantness" (EP) from consuming a product depends only on its intrinsic properties and the individual's thirst. However, marketers try to influence this experience by changing a drink's external properties, such as its price. "This type of influence is valuable for companies, because EP serves as a learning signal that is used by the brain to guide future choices," the paper says. Contrary to this basic assumption, several studies have shown that marketing can influence how people value goods. For example, Shiv has shown that people who paid a higher price for an energy drink, such as Red Bull, were able to solve more brain teasers than those who paid a discounted price for the same product.

Despite the pervasive influence of marketing, very little is known about how neural mechanisms affect decision-making, the researchers said. "Here, we propose a mechanism though which marketing actions can affect decision-making," they write. "We hypothesized that changes in the price of a product can influence neural computations associated with EP." Because perceptions about quality are positively correlated with price, the scholars argued that someone might expect an expensive wine to taste better than a cheaper one. Their hypothesis went further, stipulating that a person's anticipated experience would prompt higher activity in the part of the brain that experiences pleasure, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, or mOFC, in the forehead.

Shiv, a native of India, said he decided to study wine because so many people, especially in the Golden State, are crazy about it. "I'm just fascinated with wine," he said. "It has always amused me how much time and effort people put into this hobby. I couldn't understand it until I moved to California and started appreciating the whole thing. But, in the back of my mind, the price variation in wines has always puzzled me. You can go from spending $4 to $200 to $300 and up a bottle. Why are people going for that? Some are trying to show off, but most people are not. They are very serious about it, and they think that the more expensive it is, the better it is. That has always befuddled me. Is it really that people are getting more pleasure from it? Or do they just think so?"

The study

The researchers recruited 11 male Caltech graduate students who said they liked and occasionally drank red wine. The subjects were told that they would be trying five different Cabernet Sauvignons, identified by price, to study the effect of sampling time on flavor. In fact, only three wines were used—two were given twice. The first wine was identified by its real bottle price of $5 and by a fake $45 price tag. The second wine was marked with its actual $90 price and by a fictitious $10 tag. The third wine, which was used to distract the participants, was marked with its correct $35 price. A tasteless water was also given in between wine samples to rinse the subjects' mouths. The wines were given in random order, and the students were asked to focus on flavor and how much they enjoyed each sample.


The participants said they could taste five different wines, even though there were only three, and added that the wines identified as more expensive tasted better. The researchers found that an increase in the perceived price of a wine did lead to increased activity in the mOFC because of an associated increase in taste expectation. Shiv said he expects enophiles will challenge the results, since his subjects were not professional connoisseurs. "Will these findings replicate among experts?" he asked. "We don't know, but my speculation is that, yes, they will. I expect that the enophiles will show more of these effects, because they really care about it."

According to Shiv, the emotional and hedonic areas of the brain could be fundamental to making good decisions because they serve as a navigational device. "The brain is super-efficient," he said. "There seems to be this perfect overlap in one part of the brain between what happens in real time and what happens when people anticipate something. It's almost acting as a GPS system. This seems to be the navigational device that helps us learn what is the right thing to do the next time around."

This research was supported with grants from the National Science Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

HMMMMM -- the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation? I wonder if we should call this study the Moore's Law of wine?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

My Rosenblum Cellars Besides Zin Wine Tasting for The Pompous Twits tasting group

I hosted our winetasting group, The Pompous Twits, April 19th (2008) for a reprise of my tasting last year, where we tried a number of wines from Rosenblum Cellars, of Alameda, California, going beyond Rosenblum's famed Zins to see what else they are making these days.

The Rosenblum Redux tasting this year, at the excellent Paradisio Restaurant at the Castro Valley (CA) golf club, was a big hit -- 18 Twits showed up to sample a cross-section of Rosenblum's finest -- not just their traditional Zinfandels, but numerous others as well -- mainly with a focus on California-grown Rhone-style grapes and blends.

Despite the variety, one Rosenblum twist was evident in all the wines: They were all high in alcohol, even the whites, which ranged from 14.5 to 15.0%! The lowest was the Rhodes Petite Sirah at "only" 13.8% alcohol, while the highest was the classic Rockpile Road Zin at 16.3%! Luckily we only tasted 17 wines (plus a nonRosenblum Dave Hulet brought)!

Flight 1: Whites
1. Rosenblum Preston Vineyard Marsanne, Dry Creek Valley, 2006, 14.5% ($25)
2. Rosenblum Santa Barbara County Roussanne, Appellation Series, 2005, 15.0% ($18)
3. Rosenblum Chateau La Paws Cote du Bone Blanc, White Wine, 2006, 14.6% ($14)

The first flight was three whites -- Marsanne, Roussanne, and Cote du Bone Blanc, all Rhone-style blends. The Roussanne was especialy rich and ripe, while the Cote du Bone Blanc Gail Engstrom dubbed a "deck wine" -- one that would be great sitting out on the deck on a warm summer evening!

Flight 2: Reds
4. Rosenblum Rhodes Vineyard Grenache, Redwood Valley, 2006, 14.5% ($25)
5. Rosenblum Contra Costa County Mourvedre, 2006, 14.0% ($18)
6. Rosenblum Russian River Valley Merlot, Appellation Series, 2005, 14.8% ($18)
7. Rosenblum Holbrook Mitchell Trio Red Wine (Meritage), Napa Valley, 2004, 15.7% ($25)

The second flight included a Grenache, a Mourvedre, a Merlot, and a Holbrook Mitchell Trio Meritage. Lots of people especially like dthe Grenache.

Flight 3: Mostly Syrahs
8. Rosenblum Vintner's Cuvee Syrah, California, 2005, 15.0% ($12)
9. Rosenblum Chateau La Paws Cote du Bone Roan, California Red Wine, 2005, 14.9% ($14)
10. Rosenblum Abba Vineyard Syrah, Lodi, 2005, 14.9% ($20)
11. Rosenblum Rhodes Vineyard Petite Sirah, Redwood Valley, 2005, 13.8% ($20)

The third flight was nearly all California Syrahs of one kind or another: the Vintner's Cuvee Syrah, a Chateau La Paws Cote du Bone Roan Rhone-style blend of Carignane, Syrah, and Mourvedre, with a Rosenblum twist of some Zin in there; an QAbba Vineyard Syrah from Lodi--rich and fruity as one would expect but not flabby; and a Rhodes Petite Sirah that many of our tasters liked.

Flight 4: Super-Zins!
12. Rosenblum Rockpile Road Vineyard Zinfandel, 2004, 16.3% ($25)
13. Rosenblum Snows Lake Vineyard Zinfandel, Lake County, 2004, 15.5% ($35)

With the fourth flight we entered Zin territory, starting with a 2004 Rockpile Road Vineyard Zinfandel that was stunningly jammy and dense. Second was a 2004 Snows Lake Vineyard Zin that at first was knocked over by the Rockpile, but Tom Tilley detected some subtleties in it and predicted that as it opened up in the glass it would turn into a powerhouse every bit equal to the Rockpile - and by gad, he was right! By the end of the evening, the Snows Lake has opened up to reveal both richness and subtle refinement that put it on equal footing, or maybe even slightly above, the Rockpile - if you can believe that! Tom recommended we take another look at it next year -- fortunately, I have a bottle of same left, and Joe and Ann Farias have two bottles of that same year! So we can try a bottle each year for three years, see when exactly it turns perfect! (And of course there aren't any left to buy when we DO find the perfect timing!)

(Note that these two cost me the prices listed when I bought them as futures a few years ago; both brands are now in the $45 range for the current releases--and you can't find the prior releases to buy anywhere, unfortunately!

Flight 5: Reds Not Zins
14. Rosenblum Aparicio Vineyard Zinfandel, Amador County, 2004, 14.9% ($20)
15. Rosenblum Eagle Point Vineyard Zinfandel, Mendocino County, 2004, 15.3% ($22)
16. Rosenblum Harris Kratka Vineyard Zinfandel, Alexander Valley, 2005, 14.7% ($28)
17. Rosenblum Richard Sauret Vineyard Zinfandel, Paso Robles, 2006, 14.7% ($20)

Flight 5 showed four Zins from four different parts of California: Aparicio Vineyard in Amador County 2004, Eagle Point VIneyard from Mendocino Co., 2004, Harris Kratka Vineyard in Alexander Valley 2005, and Richard Sauret Vineyard in Paso Robles, 2006. This was a real tough call as to which was tastier -- as Jerry Rose said, each was very different and they were all fabulous!

A great tasting with a great bunch of Twits made it another Pompous Month to Remember!


2007 Livermore Valley, CA, Harvest Wine Festival---yum!

The annual Livermore Valley Harvest Fest each September shows off 36 of the wineries in the Livermore Valley, which is due east about 50 miles from San Francisco, California -- it's relatively unknown to the millions of Wine Country visitors, who head up to the overcrowded and overpriced Napa Valley north of here, but the locals know and love it. In fact, Livermore Valley is site of the oldest winemaking vines in California. They are strong in Zinfandel, but also grow a wide variety of other grapes -- prices are reasonable, the wines often delicious, the area uncrowded, the wineries happy to see you. And it's a lot closer to the San Francisco East Bay area than Napa or Sonoma.

To give you the flavor, here's my report on my visit in September 2007. If you get a chance this coming fall, definitely try to find the chance to go! Visit

How It Works: There are 35 wineries participating - 35! You can't hit them all. You can't even drive among them without hitting something! So buy your ticket early, park at the main parking lot in Livermore (or take BART and the shuttle), then shuttle busses take you along the four or five routes to the various wineries. Your biggest problem will be deciding which route to take - I usually pick at random because they're all good. It's actually easier to take than the fabulous ZAP because the delays while you wait for the next shuttle let your body adjust to the last round.

There are tastings and munchies at each winery and often music and trinkets for sale. Most wineries also offer, for an extra five bucks or so, to let you try their SPecial Stuff in the barn in the back -- and invite you to buy wine or to buy futures. I've bought futures and been *very* happy with my selection. But you can have quite an afternoon just drinking the stuff up front without paying extra.

Some years it is very hot in the Valley; last year it was quite pleasant. No way to tell.

Anne-Marie and Rodney St.John-Brookes and I drove out to Livermore (California) for the annual Harvest Festival Sunday, and had a great time! It was hotter than hell -- nearly 100 -- but under shade there was a nice breeze that cooled everything just right.

We got to PageMill Winery, a new one transplanted from the SF Peninsula. Somebody we know from our BAWDY winetasting group was supposed to be a volunteer there but we couldn't find them. The PageMill wines don't do much for me. Sorry!

We were then supposed to visit Red Skye, one of wineries we tasted in the earliest days of the BAWDY group, with very good wines; but the winery was in a complex of several wineries that was so overwhelmingly crowded with cars that we couldn't find parking. There were only a few wineires like that -- the best-known names, like Wente; my advice is to use this kind of festival as a chance to visit wineries you *haven't* heard of. Livermore Valley is open most of the time, you can visit Concannon and the like any time you want.

We went to Retzlaff first; a few years ago I got talked into buying a mixed case of reds on futures at this festival, and boy did that turn out to be a good move. The Cabs, Merlots, and Cab-Merlot blends I got in that case tasted good, then every few months I'd open another bottle and it was noticeable better than before -- a little aging was treating the Retzlaff very well! I am down to two bottles and almost afraid to open them! So I again bought a case of futures, which at $312 isn't overpriced, and will pick it up in January when it's bottled.

We stopped by Fenestra to see how their True Red was tasting. True Red is a blend I discovered a decade ago. They call them "Lot X" where X is a number that increments each year. I had started with Lot 9 back then, and really liked it (and it's cheap -- under ten bucks). I discovered in this visit that up until Lot 11, the True Reds were a Zin-based blend (with Grenache, for one); after Lot 11, they switched to a fully Rhone-style blend. Zins aren't blended often, and I had really liked the old True Reds. But now the Rhone-styles I like OK, but not nearly as much.

We also visited two smaller vintners, Rios-Lovell and Cedar Mountain, both of which have lovely tasting rooms. Rodney liked Cedar Mountain's Sangiovese and Barbero; he wants to host a tasting of Sangioveses and Barberos and of course I encouraged him.

We then drove all the way out to Westover, out in the Hayward hills, because Anne-Marie and Rodney had never been up there, even though it's behind their house in the Hayward Hills,, on Palomares Road. At Westover's very nice facility, someone named Chambier Bechtel (!), Dir of Dev and Design for Tres Classique Specialty Foods of Sonoma, was selling the most amazingly delicious flavored olive oils and vinegars you have ever tasted! I bought four bottles -- and broke two of them putting them in my car. Sigh. Westover's wines were fine; they are most famous for bottling 20 different kinds of ports and dessert wines, probably more than anyone in California.

We then visited Chouinard, next door, where Rodney and I each bought a mixed case of reds (Alicante Bouchet, Zin, and red table wine) that was, well, ok, but mainly because it was at clearance sale prices. And I bought a case of surprisingly good Viognier, also on deep discount -- a steal at $4 a bottle. They also have a truly wonderful Chenin Blanc, as good as any American Chenin Blanc I've ever tasted. They also have an improbably mild and tasty Green-Apple wine(!). Their Gewurtz was good, and they actually have an "Ice Viognier" -- they cheat by putting the grapes in a freezer, because it simply doesn't get cold enough in California -- that, like a typical ice wine, was sweet and tasty and tangy.

But we ran out of time and steam before hitting all the others of the 36 wineries displaying their wares. Too Many Wineries/Not Enough Time! or Liver!

Next year, we promised, we'd keep track of what we saw so we can work our way through the rest of the list. Or maybe we'll just drive over to Livermore from time to time on our own - it's only, like, 30 minutes away!