Thursday, December 24, 2009

Chalone 04 Pinot Noir, Estate - Yes indeedy!

Chalone Vineyards 2004 Pinot Noir, Estate, The Pinnacles, Soledad, Monterey County, CA. 14.2%. $38.

I picked up several bottles of this at the annual Diageo wine event in Napa, where interesting bargains are to be had. In this case, they were selling Chalone Pinot Noir at about a third of the list price, so I got a few bottles, and opened one this evening.

It's delicious. It's exactly what I want from a Pinot -- light but flavorful, with a nice finish, which is how I characterize Burgundy-style Pinots. (Many West-Coast Pinots go for a more aggressive flavor profile: more intense, concentrated flavor. But if I want concentrated flavor, I'll drink a Cab, or Syrah, or Zin.)

Stuff's Yum! How's that for sophisticated wine-reviewer wordsmithing?

Luna Vineyards Pinot Grigio--Great Beverage Wine

I was pleased the other day to get three bottles of wine from a winery I didn't know, Luna Vineyards -- new wineries are always fun. The bottles are attractive, with beautiful, elegant labels. The wines are all from Napa: a 2007 Pinot Grigio, a 2007 Sangiovese, and a 2006 Merlot.

I opened the Pinot Grigio first, and tried it on its own as an aperatif -- I don't like it straight. It has a pleasant aroma, but there's not a lot of flavor: The fruit I expect from Pinot Grigio is too restrained for my tastes, and the acid a little too prominent.

Then I tried it as a beverage, to wash down a pork roast with cream sauce -- and it perked right up. The plainness, and the acid bite, cleared and freshened the palate, and made the flavorful pork even tastier.

Tanzer gives it 90 points and finds peach and orange blossom flavors -- I have no idea where he's getting that.

The wine lists at $18; K&L sells it for $15, and likes it, calling it "a rich, mouthful ... that also includes a splash of Chardonnay for extra intrigue... a favorite for its texture and mouthfeel, clean fruit and minerality. This is a food-friendly white for any night of the week." Well, the food-friendly part is right, but I wouldn't recommend you take this to your next winetasting -- it doesn't work in that context. But to go with dinner tonight (or even lunch tomorrow), it works.

I'll try the two reds another night.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

My Two Favorite Livermore Valley Wineries Revisited

In the past two years of going to wine festivals and other wine events in the Livermore Valley (an area to the east of San Francisco), of the 40 or so excellent wineries that make this area well worth visiting, two new wineries in particular have stood out from the crowd: Longevity, and Cuda Ridge. I stopped by both at the Livermore Holidays in the Vineyards festival this weekend, and it reinforced my high opinion of each of them.


Winemaker Phil Long and his wife Debra and their small staff turn out some truly wonderful wines. What distinguishes them in my mind is that they create wine pleasures in both red and white -- since I'm a red-wine guy, it takes a lot to make me drink whites very often.
Phil produces a very tasty Chenin Blanc, one of this country's most overlooked wines. Chenin Blanc used to be popular as a regular table wine decades ago, but that popularity, as often happens in wines, ruined it: Everybody jumped on the bandwagon, and it didn't take long before the word Chenin Blanc could only be found
in jug wines, and the varietal was mainly grown as blending filler for other low-end jugs. A great grape, turned into swill. A wine to conjure with in France, made a laughingstock here. What a pity.

A few California winemakers are reviving Chenin Blanc, in small quantities, and it couldn't happen to a nicer grape. Phil's $18 version is a good example of the new generation: tasty, round, food-friendly, it's the kind of white wine that red drinkers like, the kind people describe as "a white to drink if you're tired of Chardonnay."

Phil also does a tasty Viognier ($18), and a surprisingly enjoyable Chardonnay -- another of those "The Chard for people who don't like Chard" wines! ($21)

Of course, I'm a red drinker, so it's Phil's reds that really light my fire: His $23 06 San Francisco Bay Merlot is delicious, his $22 06 Contra Costa Cabernet silky, and his $18 Lodi Barbera is much better than almost any Barbera's you've had lately.

He says his upcoming 06 Contra Costa Syrah is terrific, and I believe him. (He also says the 07 Syrah coming up behind it will be even better!) They also do a Rhone blend that's currently sold out.

Find Longevity Wines at and order some up today. It's a small operation (500 cases, on their way up to 2500), and its wines sell out early as people like me are discovering them. You can also find it in stores in the Livermore area if you're from around here. Best of all, join their Club and get reds, whites, or mixed four times a year.

Cuda Ridge

Larry and Marge Dino specialize in Bordeaux-style blends, and other blends inspired by Bordeaux -- but with a California twist in how they taste -- a twist that's very, very good! If you are anywhere near their place in Livermore, you've got to go to , find them, and make any excuse you can to visit and taste. You'll be happy you did.

They use all Livermore Valley grapes, and are another small winery producing over 500 cases at the moment, with plans to grow to 1,000 cases -- still not enough to expect to find it in wine shops outside of California (but in many states you can order online, thankfully). Otherwise you'll find them in restaurants around the Livermore area.

This weekend I again tried their Merlot and their Cab -- deceptive labels, since they really are the Dino's interpretation of a Right-Bank Bordeaux Blend (meaning, mainly Merlot) and a Left-Bank Bordeaux Blend (meaning, mostly Cabernet). Each is delicious -- a steal at $22 and $30 respectively. Here's the thing: When you choose a Bordeaux, you're looking for a well-rounded, balanced blended red wine with character, depth, and subtlety. But no matter that you pay (within reason) for a French Bordeaux, you are often disappointed -- truthfully, aren't you? So often that brand-name second-tier Bordeaux is just flat and bland and plain -- sorry, I mean: Subtle and sophisticated. Yeah.

What you're really looking for is what the Cuda Ridge Merlot and Cab give you: Balance, rounded mouth-filling taste, and a nice finish that tells you that you've just had something good. Forget $75 French Bordeaux -- save your money and please your taste buds much more with this stuff.

Cuda Ridge also makes a $26 Cab Franc that is better than any I've had before -- rich and smooth, without the harsh edge you often find in this varietal. As with all Cuda Ridge wines, this is a blend, with a bit of Merlot, a bit of Cab, and a bit of Petit Verdot to fill it out -- and nicely done!

Petit Verdot is an interesting grape, little known here, and used almost entirely as a blending grape in France. Well, wait until you taste the Petit Verdot from these guys -- rats, it's sold out. Next release is in February at $28 -- but they are only making 11 cases. The bastards! That's illegal, innit? This stuff is absolutely delicious in the barrel -- though you know how deceptive barrel tastings can be: That gorgeous fresh fruit is so delightful, but it changes once you bottle it. Whether that change is good or OK, one can only tell by trying. Which I plan to do. (One visitor averred that this Petit Verdot would age well, but the idea of holding onto tasty wines for a few years is expecting more willpower than I've ever demonstrated in any area of my life, I'm sorry to say.)

We visitors also got a barrel swig of their newest wine, a Livermore Valley Zinfandel that's wonderful and also different from a typical Zin -- as always, they blend it, in this case with some Cab and some Petit Verdot (they loved the Petit Verdot in there, but tried adding Merlot and that flattened the taste -- Merlot crashes right into Petit Verdot somehow and neutralizes its high notes; so they tried a pinch -- like a couple percent -- of Cab, and that did the trick). The result is a Zin that's more like an interesting Bordeaux than a regular fruit-forward, dense Zin -- the kind I like, you understand, but this one is very different. It won't replace Rosenblum Rockpile Zin in my heart of hearts -- but I may have to build an extra shelf to on side to accommodate this one, because dammit it's just good. It will come out in the February time frame too, I believe.

I'm going to try to get these two winemakers to come show their wares to our BAWDY wine group one of these months soon. I know I sound like a shill for these two wineries, but I'm not - I don't get anything from either of them, not even a free bottle of wine -- but I do get a wonderful wine experience that I enjoy so much I want to spread the word and the flavorful fun to everyone else. If you manage to get your hand on one of these delicious wines, you'll be telling everybody you meet, too, trust me!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Two Disappointing Wines....

Opened a bottle of 2004 Chateau La Fleur Bibian ($15) the other day. It's a Listrac-Medoc "Cuvee de Coeur" Grand Vin de Bordeaux, and it's nothing. Sharp-edged and with insufficient fruit, it's a disappointment.

At the other end of the ambition scale was a bottle of Rosemount Shiraz, an 05 on sale at BevMo for five bucks - I see why. I loved Rosemount's Shirazes when they first came to the US a few years ago -- all the fun and fruit and
smiles of California Merlots back in the 80s when Merlot first became a popular drink.

Of course, we know what happened to Merlot -- popularity meant everybody jumped on the bandwagon, slapped together bottles of disappointment, grew Merlot grapes where they weren't supposed to grow, and ruined an enjoyable wine.

Guess that's happening to the Australian Shirazes -- once fun, now stupid; once with light, bright fruits, now bland. Dammit. Volume eventually kills, doesn't it?

Wonder if Yellowtail has crashed to the ground by now? It sure is grinding out oceans of their reds....

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Your SavvyTaste wine blog somehow managed to squeeze into the Crushpad Fusebox Wine Blogger Blendoff Contest that pitted ten wine bloggers against one another to see who could come up with the best blend of five Bordeaux-style wines.

The gimmick was dreamed up by the people at Crushpad of San Francisco, a custom-crush facility that, in addition to renting its equipment and space out to small winemakers, offers regular Joes the chance to play winemaker. For a price between five and ten thousand dollars (depending on the grapes you choose), you get to choose your grapes (such as Cab and Merlot and Zin), produced by top growers in Napa and Sonoma, watch them come into the facility in the fall, help out with the crush (with your friends, a dirty and reputedly fun job), choose the yeast clone, pick the oak type, and a number of other choices, then design your own label. (They advise you at every step, send you email so you can keep track of things, and even let you skip steps if you're busy and just let them do it.) The following year you get 25 cases of your own "cult" wine, as they put it, which you "made" from grape to bottle, with your own label personal on it. The
cost works out to $20 to $35 a bottle -- not a bad price, especially if you are the kind of person who likes to give wine gifts to friends--now you can give them your own wine!

Junior Winemaker Me

Not everyone is up for that elaborate an experience, of course--I've dreamed of doing it, along with the members of one of my wine groups, BAWDY (Bay Area Wine Drinkers-and-a-Y), but we have never quite gotten around to it. So the clever boots at Crushpad came up with "Fusebox," a nifty low-rent variant. And then they came up with the equally clever idea of throwing this competition to generate publicity.

We had so much fun with the thing that I am glad to get coopted into helping generate that publicity!

Open the Box, Mac, and Let's Get Started!

Fusebox costs $80. You get a box full of half-bottles of Napa-sourced wine -- two Cabernet Sauvignons, one Merlot, one Cab Franc, and one Petit Verdot -- the five main blending grapes used to make Bordeaux (lacking only Malbec, for some reason). You also get a nice corkpull, and some chem-lab-style plastic measuring devices for accurate (heh!) measurements as you test various blends.

I of course have never *blended* a wine, except when I've accidentally taken a sip from the spit bucket. (Not bad, you'd be surprised...) But heck, worst case me and my friends taste some wine, how bad can it be?

Well, not bad at all - in fact, even more fun than I expected. Except for the tiny panic attack when I realized we were going to have to come up with a label design, and for some reason we weren't going to be able to use Crushpad's easy-designer service (they weren't able to get it set up to let us do it for free -- by the way, FCC regs suggest that I mention that we got this $80
Fusebox set for free in order to perform in this competition. So draw your own conclusions about conflicts of interest that might arise when somebody gives me a box of good Napa red wines...)

Borrow Two Friends and Blend

Now I don't know anything about design and have no design tools. So I talked to my buddies at Bawdy and it turns out that Bonnie Black was willing to give the label design a go, and she and her beau Gordon Coslow were willing to come over my house and help me figure out how to do a wine blending. Which they don't know how to do either, but for wine, they'll try.

So we popped open the bottles, dug out glasses, set out the marking sheets and informational materials, and set to work tasting the wines provided. The Cab was very good. The Merlot I liked but Gordon thought it was kind of flat. The Cab Franc was very tasty. (Tasty: That's a technical term used mainly by experienced wine reviewers.) The Petit Verdot was a surprise -- a nice perky acidic tang that we really liked.

I tried to talk through the notion that wine blending is a matter of figuring out what each wine can add to the other wine tastes: If the Cab has a good opening and a good finish but seems a little flat in the middle (which I thought it did), then maybe one of the other wines will have a bigger middle that complements that. Bonnie and Gordon weren't buying it.

So we took the "recipe" cards provided, which gave the blend percentages of some famous French Bordeaux such as the 1996 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, which it says here is 83% Cab S., 7% Cab F, 7% Merlot, and 3% Petit Verdot, and 2000 Chateau Margaux, which is a simple 80% Cab S and 20% Merlot, and we made those blends to see what they tasted like.

They were pretty good.

Time To Get Crazy

Then at Gordon's suggestion, we took a dollop of our Cab S and added a splash of Cab Franc, and well, it actually did taste better than either alone! Imagine our surprise!

So we threw in some of that interesting Petit Verdot and Lord! It perked up very nicely, filling in a blank spot in the taste profile that we hadn't even know was there!

We were giddy with surprise that we could actually tell the differences as we mixed the wines! Hey, maybe there's really something to this blending thing!

Next we opened the sixth bottle in the package: The Mystery Wine, it was labeled. This is a preblended combo that we're supposed to taste and see if we can identify the blend. (Yeah, right!) We popped it open and tasted: No idea, but it tasted very good, so we had some more.

Then we went back and retasted our blend. Gordon pointed out that the mystery wine was smooooother than ours, where that Petit Verdot was maybe a little too perky. He suggested we calm it down with some of that Merlot that he thought was bland.

We added just a bit of Merlot and -- Jaysus! Our blend just settled right down and purred like a kitten! The perk was still there, but now it was like a piccolo in a chamber orchestra!

Miracles Can Happen

We couldn't believe it! We had made a blend that tasted better than the starting components! Us! Who don't know anything! Woo hoo!

Now the hard part: We had to calculate the percentages of each component. We had been keeping track, but every time we added another wine to the brew, the ratios of course shifted. Fortunately, Gordon has an engineer's knack for numbers, and we managed to wrestle the ratios into shape.

Our final blend turned out to be 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc, 9% Petit Verdot, and a mere 4% Merlot (that's all it needed to do the job!).

Gleeful, we whipped up some more of the blend and split it between ourselves and corked the results for our future enjoyment. (Sorry, I drank mine share all up the next day.)

Art for Wine

Now all we had to do was knock out a label work of art and we're home free! Bonnie went on my computer and called up her graphics program from the Cloud, and saved it to my desktop as a PDF file. Bonnie and Gordon went home happy.

But I discovered that the graphic didn't fit the specs we had gotten from Crushpad. And I don't have a PDF editor. Oh nooo Mr Bill! I ended up using Microsoft Powerpoint, believe it or not, to gin up a not-awful image in the right size -- Powerpoint can save as PDF, as it turns out.

I can't imagine that we'll win this competition, given our level of ignorance of the process, but I can tell you that we had a really good time, far more fun than I had expected. And we learned a surprising amount, considering that we weren't trying to learn anything at all.

What I'd Really Like is a Mixed Case of My Competitors!

If by some chance we do win -- say, all the other nine wine bloggers abruptly drop out on the grounds that they're just too good -- we get a free case of the blend we dreamed up. With out label on it. When that miracle doesn't occur, we can buy a case for $300 instead. That in fact is what regular customers of Fusebox do - you come up with a blend, email the blend in and a label design (using their graphics program instead of Powerpoint!), and then you can order wine to your custom blend at about $300 a case. Instant Christmas present that will impress your friends and baffle your enemies! And if the blend really turns out well, you can keep ordering more cases of your special blend.

Crushpad is at and its Fusebox system can be found, with all details, at .

If your blending experience inspires you to step up to the full Crushpad winemaking experience, you might find yourself on the way to becoming a real winemaker, even selling your wine (Crushpad offers commercial sales services). Apparently several customers have made the move to making a living making wine! And some are said to have gotten 90-plus points on their wines from the leading raters such as Wine Spectator and R. Parker. Phew!

I Feel a Blending Party Comin' On!

Or, if you're more like me and fun is fun but let's not get crazy here, you can still keep the party going by ordering Fuseboxes for your winetasting group. How's that for a party? Instead of just bringing wine, you bring wine blending! Each Fusebox is good for four or so people, or about $20 each, a decent price for this much fun.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Great images: Describing Roy Orbison's voice--or a smooth wine.

As writers, we always appreciate a well-turned phrase.

I'm reading the Wikipedia entry for Roy Orbison, and at one point they quote various singers attempting to describe what most referred to as his "operatic" voice -- some of these images are amazing:

*Roy Orbison's voice*
Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel both commented on the otherworldy quality of Orbison's voice; a particularly poetic comparison was Dwight Yoakam's, who stated Orbison's voice sounded like "the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window". Barry Gibb of The Bee Gees went further to say that when he heard "Crying" for the first time, "That was it. To me that was the voice of God."

Bob Dylan marked Orbison as a specific influence, stating that there was nothing like him on radio in the early 1960s:

"With Roy, you didn't know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes. With him, it was all about fat and blood. He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop. [After "Ooby Dooby"] (h)e was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal... His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, 'Man, I don't believe it'."

Angel falling backwards. Drive your car over a cliff. "He sang like a professional criminal." -- I don't even know what that *means* yet it stuns me!

Sigh.... Reminds me of a phrase the Europeans sometimes use when describing a particularly smooth wine, a phrase that is so weird it could only have been dreamed up in another language: "Prior to the French Revolution, the Vigne de l'Enfant Jesus vineyard [Beaune-Greves, Burgundy] belonged to an order of Carmelite nuns especially devoted to the Infant Jesus. Legend has it that the nuns were so enamored of the wine's silky texture that they exclaimed, 'It slips down the throat as easily as the Infant Jesus in velvet pants.' " You still hear this phrase at trade tastings; I just hear an Italian winemaker say it the other day.

mac mccarthy

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bottling Time at New Jersey's 40 Wineries

This little video takes you to one of New Jersey's 40 wineries -- yes, that's 40 -- where the harvest should just have ended.

It's bottling season at New Jersey’s Alba Vineyard

An article on the Web site describes the newly burgeoning Jersey winegrowing scene, in an article about how the recent bad weather there is creating a problem for the 2009 vintage.

The 2009 New Jersey wine vintage. A phrase I never thought I'd hear, and I'm from South Jersey!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Wine Advice for a 27-Year-Old

My friend Steve Drace wrote to ask me what I'd recommend in the way of wines for an event being hosted by his son, who is 27 and unfamiliar with wines. My response could be helpful as a starting point for the youths in your family who are just starting out!


Fortunately, wines for 27-year-olds are easy to find and tend to be inexpensive, especially if we're talking about untrained palates, who will prefer flavorful wines low in tannins (and lower in alcohol too).

There are several strategies here. Pick one.

Strategy 1: The best selling and least expensive wines in the supermarket or BevMo tend to be easy to drink, which is why they are so popular. You can just buy bottles with very familiar names, especially ones you've always heard are for unsophisticated palates. They actually taste good and tend to be low in tannins. Their biggest sin is most likely to be bland taste, but only for some of them.

Examples: Toasted Head, Kendal Jackson, J. Lohr, Beringer, Bogle, Acacia, Ch. St Jean, Edna Valley. Look for Merlots and Pinots, and fewer Cabs because Cabs can be too big for new palates (or, done badly, too awful). Also of course lots of whites.

You could pick up six or eight bottles of plonk and have a mini-tasting at home with the hosts, motor through the bottles, pick the ones they liked best, and buy enough bottles of that subset to do the job. (This also works especialliy well for Two-Buck Chuck--that is, Charles Shaw, at Trader Joe's -- which offers three or four wine styles at any given moment.)

Strategy 2: Drop by your nearest BevMo and tell the clerk what you're doing: Buying inexpensive and inoffensive BUT TASTY wines for inexperienced drinkers in their late 20s. Many BevMos have clerks who actually know what they're talking about. Not all, though, so don't invest heavily without testing.

Strategy 3: Target has wine, as you may know. They currently have a shelf labeled "12 wines for under 12 bucks." Happily, each bin of wine has a callout that says how much tannin and oak they have. Pick the ones that are lower in tannin, lower in oak, and higher in flavor.

Mac's Favs: Trader Joe's Nero d'Avolo I love. I like Rosemount Shiraz's and Yellow Tail's many wines (Trader Joe's and BevMo, about ten bucks). Bonny Doons can be fun, especially their whites. Try some Italians: Chianti is easy to drink, and some of their whites are tasty, and Valpolicella is hard to pass up. Coppola is highly variable depending on the exact label: His "Rosso" blend was terrific and under $10. Beaujolais are nice if you can get them cheap (at TJ's for example). I like Folie a Deux's Menage a Trois blend, around ten bucks. J. Lohr once made something they called Wildflower, cheap; delicious! Haven't seen it in a while. I liked Trader Joe's French Classic Cab (not the merlot) that I got a few years ago for $3; surprisingly tasty. J.W. Morris, a Trader Joe brand, makes delicious Chenin Blanc (white) and Gewurztraminer and Reisling, for $3.99 (Four-Buck Chuck?). You should be getting some of them for yourself, the heck with the kid! Ca'Na at BevMo for three bucks is unbelievable at any price, let alone that one, but I understand they sold that out. Keep an eye out anyway, just in case.

I have lots of others on my list but they start to get real pricey from here out, so we'll skip that.

And if you're attending, get one bottle of something really good for yourself, and nurse it. An R&B Cab, one of the Rosenblum black-label Zins, a JC Cellars Syrah, a Rock Wall anything.

Hope any of this helps!

Good luck! Keep track of what you end up doing and how it turns out and let me know -- I'd like to post your experience to our SavvyTaste web site, since this is exactly the situation a lot of people face from time to time, and every guide is a good guide.



Of course, he didn't! Sigh!

Pompous Twits tasting: "Weird But Wonderful!"

I said I was behind on my posts, but this is ridiculous! I was plowing through my files for materials from some recent tastings and I came across this unposted report on a fun tasting we did for my other wine group, The Pompous Twits (of Hayward, CA and environs).

The theme was "Weird but Wonderful!" and we were encouraged to bring our most unusual bottle -- whether the grape or the nationality or the blend or the name, bring something we haven't seen before.

And the 11 attending Twits responded memorably! Here is my report from February 2005.

Eleven of us gathered at the newly relaunched Rue de Main in Hayward on Saturday February 21st for this new BYOB event. We tasted 17 wines, most of which fit the Weird classification, some of which even arose to the Wonderful category. Here is a summary, as best Mac was able to copy down the names.

First, two introductory "pump primer" champagnes to get us in the right mood. And it worked!

1. Mumm Cuvee Napa Sparkling Pinot Noir - The Pinot added a nice fruity note to this champagne!

2. Frank Variville 1996 Grand Cru Champagne Brut, brought by Dave Hulet. Very nice!

3. Champagne Le Nombre d'Or, L'Aubrey Fil a Jouy-les-Reims - this was Dave's first contribution to the Weird category -and I thought it was pretty wonderful!

4. Kinneskillan 01 Pinot Noire Okanagan, from somewhere in Canada. Oh dear! Very amusingly weird!

5. Volcano Winery Macademia Nut Honey Wine, Hawaii -- really a nice mildly sweet dessert wine. From Canada to Hawaii in two bottles!

6. Domaine de Belliviere - Le Rouge-Gorge-Coteaux du Loir 2002 - a red of unusual grapage. Interesting! Only $20 said Dave!

7. Saint Gregory Mendocino Pinot Meunier 2002 - Nice sweet undercurrent to this one.

8. Creston Vineyards 1995 Pinot Noir Paso Robles. Hmm. Some people liked it!

9. Grgic Plavac Mali 1996 Croatia - made by the same Grngch as here in California, but from a grape that is a precursor to Zin, we're told.

10. Imagery Series, International Imagery Red Table Wine - no year - A blend of wines from around the world. Corked, unfortunately. That could have been fun.

11. Finca Sandoval Manchuela 2002 - A Syrah of some sort from Spain.

12. Topolos Sonoma Alicante Bouschet 1997. A nice light Alicante.

13. Pine Ridge Onyx 99 Napa Rutherford - a Malbec-Merlot-Tannat blend. Not the most common blend in the world -- I'll bet some of you have never (knowingly) even tasted a Tannat!

14. Souzao 1996 from Bonny Doon -- the Portuguese port grape has here been transformed into a table wine -- interesting dense!

15. Tradition (?) Tiara Rhone Reserve diVieux Cardinal - a declassified French vineyard. And for a reason, too!

We finished up with a couple of regular wines to end our most interesting evening:

16. Ridge Pajano Ranch 1997 Zin

17. Retzlaff 2003 Merlot (newly bottled)

A most curious and entertaining evening, I think, and one that should

BAWDY: Old Cabs/Old Bordeaux Tasting

I'm catching up on past tastings, as you will see. This was a February 2009 tasting of one of my wine groups, BAWDY ("Bay Area Wine Drinkers and-a-Y"). Hosted by Brian and Jill Oana at their Alameda CA home, the theme they chose for this BYOB was "OLD CABS/OLD BORDEAUX."

Well, who's going to miss a thing like that??

Of course, this means "old" in affordable terms -- we're not rich and our cellars are relatively lacking in age-depth. But here's what we 20 or so people came up with -- and a remark by me about the ones that jumped out at me. If I didn't remark on it, I either didn't get to taste it, or I don't remember it.

Here they are, listed by age:

1974 Inglenook Cab Limited Cask A-3, Napa
--over the hill but not awful

1986 Simi Cab Commemorative Edition, Alexander Valley

1991 Cline Mourvedre, Contra Costa County (CA)

1995 Chateau Clerc Milon Grand Cru, Pauillac
--very good

1995 Sterling Vineyard Reserve Cab blend, Napa

1996 Lolonis Cab, Redwood Valley, Mendocino

1997 Kiona Cab, Washington State

1997 Inniskillin Gamay Noir, Niagara Peninsula
--a whaaa? but tasty!

1998 BV Rutherford Cab, Napa
--outstanding -- no surprise!

2000 D’Agostini Cab, Alexander Vly

2000 Close Du Bois Merlot, Sonoma
--very good

2001 White Oak Cab blend, Napa

2001 William Hill Reserve Cab, Napa

2002 Retzlaff Cab, Livermore Vly

2002 St. Supery Cab, Napa

2003 Mount Eden Vineyard Cab blend, Santa Cruz Mtns

2005 L’Ecole No 41 Perigee Seven Hills Cab blend, Walla Walla, Washington
--this is supposed to be fab, but I didn't get to taste it, darn it.

2005 Rodrigue Molyneaux Cab, Livermore CA

2006 Chateau Haut-Sorillon, Bordeaux Superieur

2006 Educated Guess Cab, Napa

2006 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz-Cab, S. Australia

2006 St. Francis, Chard, Sonoma

2006 DeCanal Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (unopened--just too many wines!)

2007 Robert Mondavi Private Select Cab, Calif.

Great evening!

Taster's Guild: Monticello Vineyards Pairing

Taster's Guild is a wine-and-food pairing club, with chapters around the country -- the San Francisco East Bay Area chapter, "Diablo," run by Gail and John Engstrom of Dublin, hosted the April pairing at a new location, Stacey's at Waterford, a midlevel restaurant (entrees $20-$30) known locally for being owned by the wife of Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. This was our first time at Stacey's, and it won't be our last, judging from the wonderful food they served.

The winery host was Corley Family Monticello Vineyards, Napa Valley, who brought eight of their best examples of the vintner's art, which young Executive Chef Cody Cost matched up with his cuisine. The results were moan-inducing good.

The 2006 Estate Grown Chardonnay ($28) and 06 Corley Reserve Chard ($40) were served with butter-poached lobster with shellfish reduction, and pan-seared sea scallops with green-pear puree. Delicious. Actually, it was the warm garlic breadsticks that really showed the Corley Reserve Chard to its best advantage - surprising, huh?

Then we had wild-mushroom risotto along with a pancetto-wrapped trumpet mushroom topped with pinot-noir beef broth, paired with an 06 Estate Grown Pinot Noir ($58) and an 06 Estate Grown Cab Franc ($38). The risotto was delicious; I don't like mushroom, sorry, so I skipped that. The pinot followed the classic archtype: light yet very flavorful. The cab franc was very good too; I find cab francs highly variable, so it was a relief that this one tasted so good. It was, in fact, very like a good cab sauvignon.

Next up was the hit of the night: Crispy lechon-style pork belly with dark-cherry glaze, and Vermont duck confit with blackberry compote with sweet reduction (I don't know what a sweet reduction is, do you?). I swear there were people all around me moaning with stunned pleasure at this pair of foods. They were so rich and intensely flavorful -- especially the pork belly -- that we knew we were killing ourselves even faster than usual -- and we didn't care! The wine pairing could not have been more perfect, either: an 06 Estate Grown Syrah ($38) and an 05 Corley Proprietary Red ($85 -- 56% Cab Franc, 28% Merlot, 10% Syrah, and 10% Cab S.). Sweet Mother of God! These dense, dark-fruit, intense wines went toe-to-toe with the densely flavorful fats and they fought each other to a delicious standstill. It will be a long time before I taste the likes of that again!

Finally they served a petite filet mignon, sliced medium-rare over tiny cubes of butter-braised purple potatoes, on top of crisp broccolini, with a cab-bacon reduction and rich porcini demi-glace over the whole thing. This was also over-the-top delicious -- sorry, I'm a potatoes guy, so I really focussed especially on those odd-looking purple potato cubes, which had enough butter in them to satisfy even me. I finally couldn't take it any more -- I had to have them box up the steak to take home to my daughter -- I had just eaten too much astonishing, rich food at one sitting and had to take a breather. Wow!

The wine accompanying this last entre was an 06 Jefferson Cuvee Cab Sauvignon, which is currently sold out in this vintage, and an 05 Corley Reserve Cab, $65. Both were terrific.

We ended with blood-orange creme brulee (shot with white-chocolate crisp) and a broken-dark-chocolate tote with espresso cocoa glaze, accompanied, fortunately (for we were fully wine up by now) by coffee.

Well, I hardly know which deserve the greater raves, the chef or the winemaker. This was another astonishing performance by the Taster's Guild people. Each wine was terrific -- even the Chards were notable, and I'm not much of a whites guy. Not a loser in the bunch. And Stacey's knocked our socks off. We couldn't believe, when he came out for our accolades, that a chef that young-seeming (25?) could be that creative and inventive, and capable of reaching such heights of flavor.

Lord! What a meal!

So, recommendations: Corley/Monticello is one of those smallish wineries you're lucky to be able to find, so try them online or through your wine merchant. Stacey's restaurant is sensational!

And the real lesson is this: If you want a monthly visit from the food and wine gods, find a Taster's Guild near you. Not only did we have a fantastic meal, but we drank wines that would normally be well beyond my regular wine budget, and in some cases wines that are hard to find or even sold out. The whole evening cost me $65, which is a lot -- but only a fraction of what we got for the money!

Stacey's Closes One of Its Two!

Since this tasting a few months ago, Stacey's had to close its Waterford location -- a crime of the recession. Stacey's original location is still operating in downtown Pleasanton CA, worth a look.

(We did discover, however, in attempting to get to Stacey's, that Google Maps has not a clue where 4500 Tassajara Road is in Dublin: From my desktop, Google Maps showed me a spot about six blocks north of where Stacey's actually is; after I drove up and down Tassajara for a while, I looked on the cell-phone version of Google Maps, and that one told me it was about a block south of where it turned out to be. That's the worst performance I've ever seen from Google Maps, and I can't guess the basis for the flaw -- Tassajara is a major street and runs straight from here to there. Oh well.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

It Ain't Easy Reviewing and Writing About Wines...

Small controversy going around about wine reviews: Some experienced, sophisticated wine writers who are published in top wine journals are complaining about the flood of Web wine writers and bloggers (like yours truly). Many of us don't know much about wine; many don't know much, period. Some established wine critics are busy making fools of themselves by asserting that some kind of training or bona fides are required before you can take a wine writer seriously. The Web and especially the Blogsphere is reacting as you would guess they would: angrily.

But writing about wine the way I do in this blog does raise questions. I often ask myself, when writing up an event like ZAP or the Livermore Wine Fest, or a trade tasting, what exactly am I telling my readers that is of value? "I went to a trade tasting and you didn't!" is hardly helpful. Even "I took notes while walking around Ft Mason drinking wine" isn't much better. Impressing you is not a value-add. Not for you, anyway.

At a basic level, it has to be "Here's what I tasted and here's what I thought about it." But is that helpful to you? How about if you don't know me, and you don't know what kinds of wines I like? Unless you can dope out my preferences from what I write, so you can compare it to what you like, no, it won't be helpful.

Rather than make you wade through the full list of wines tried and scored, it might be best to give the reader the "top line view" -- here are the wines that impressed me most, and why; here are a few oddballs or losers worth mentioning for reading fun; here's some atmosphere from the event. I tried that with the recent Livermore tasting notes elsewhere on this blog.

Squaring the Wine-Review Circle

There are so many problems with evaluating and recommending wines to the general public:

--Individual variations in how people taste things; I suspect this could be a bigger problem than we realize.

--Individual variations in which flavor components people like and how much. This is the biggest problem. I like big jammy reds; my taste buds are shot so I can tolerate high alcohol levels; I like off-dry wines. Others hate jammy/dense/concentrated reds, some dislike sweet, some are overwhelmed by alcohol. Writing about a wine in a way that talks to each of these as if their tastes matter is tough — when I’m giving a thumbs ‘way up to a Rosenblum Monte Rosso Zin, I’m not helping those who can’t stand a wine that big. But do you end up writing “for those who prefer this style, you’ll like this wine” babble?

--Evolving palates of readers: Beginning wine drinkers appreciate different flavor profiles as they drink more wine and get used to different kinds of wines. Do we try something like, “This isn’t a wine for beginners, but for sophisticated palates” in our writeups? And as people age, their palates change, regardless of how much wine they’ve been drinking.

--Sophistication of palates varies a lot, of course: Some people drink a lot of wine, but they don’t reach out and try different kinds, they just drink Cab all the time, and from the same narrow list of producers, so they aren’t learning anything. Some drink a variety of wines, but don’t learn anything about what they are drinking, what tastes and sensations they are experiencing, don’t try to think about what they are drinking and what it means. That portion of your audience won’t read your review the same as the hobbyists who study it for fun (or a living) – they’ll read your elaborate reviews as farcical jargon-fests. Go to the other extreme and wine hobbyists learn nothing from you.

(Wine shops know more about the audience than anybody, because they watch the wines fly out the door. Some of them might have ideas about what various groups of drinkers have in common, and what they want to know and learn.)

--Finally, of course, your job as a wine writer varies considerably depending on the audience you write for: sophisticated wine drinkers or wanna-be’s; daily newspapers read by casual drinkers; web-reading wine hobbyists who want to learn stuff but don’t know the jargon – and don’t want to, especially the “I detected notes of white tobacco” nonsensical tasting notes jargon.

Ain’t easy.

-mac mccarthy

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mac's Livermore Harvest Wine Fest After-Action Report

What a wonderful world, that has wine in it!

I think there should be a holiday to honor the woman who discovered how to make wine! (You don't think the men would have figured it out, do you?)

In the big valley east of the San Francisco Bay Area lies what some claim is the oldest winemaking region of California -- Livermore Valley, south of 580 as it heads out towards the Altamont Pass, the Central Valley, and Highway 5.

Livermore was growing grapes before the Gold Rush. By 1893 there were 23 wineries and 4000 acres of vines. Prohibition shut down everything, and post-War urban sprawl threatened the rest, but this special wine country has been rebuilding its heritage and in recent years has grown back to 40 wineries and nearly 4000 acres of vineyards.

If you're a resident of the Bay Area, especially the East Bay, Livermore is, or should be, one of your preferred regular winetasting destinations. It's close for many than Napa and Sonoma, and relatively undiscovered by wine tourists. If you're a wine tourist, you'll have fresh stories to tell if you include Livermore in your touring.

I've visited most of these wineries in recent years, and I'm happy to say there isn't a loser in the bunch. Best of all is the annual wine festival each September, where you can try as many of the several hundred available wines as you can handle over two days of the Labor Day weekend.

Shuttles take you from winery to winery on Sunday, which is great because you don't have to drive the dusty roads yourself. But it consumes time, of course, and some Labor Days it's very hot waiting for that jitney.

Last year I discovered the Harvest Village, a one-stop-shop where 20 or so of the smaller, farther out, and newer wineries gather in tents in Robertson Park. Here you can stroll from tent to tent and taste new takes on classic Cabs and Merlots and Zins; dabble in offbeat blends; and see if any of the whites can arouse your interest (and be pleasantly surprised).

I did the tents this year, and the weather was very fine, thank goodness. For my notes, I decided to skip any attempt to detail the taste impressions, since my tastes are probably not your tastes, and the temptation to veer into wine-reviewer-speak ("white tobacco" anyone?) is great.

Instead, I am highlighting the wineries whose wines made the best impression on me. When you head out to Livermore one of these weekends soon - as you should! -- make it a point to check for these special taste delights.

CUDA RIDGE '07 Cab Franc, newly released, Smooth, well balanced, but the most impressive thing was its loooong finish. $22. This is an A-Plus wine, maybe the best of a very impressive bunch. The finish is so long, it slowed me down in my drinking--I had wait for the echoes of the sip to die down before trying the next wine!

CUDA RIDGE '07 Merlot, "a Bordeaux blend with a California twist", 82% Merlot plus some of the usual Bordeaux reds in there -- an unbelievably sweet nose, absolutely delicious. $22. A with a bunch of plus signs after it. One of those wines you spend several minutes just sniffing, it smells so good.

ELLISTON VINEYARDS '99 Merlot - just released!! Can you believe they left this in the barrel and the bottle all this time? On purpose? Winemaker Donna Flavetta (Flavetta--what a great name for a winemaker! Do you have to pay extra for a name like that?) says that since we so seldom have time, knowledge, or facilities to store wine until it's just right -- true, that -- and we just want to drink it right away--well, you might say she stored it for us! Considering that
this aged Merlot is selling for only $16, and tastes this good -- well, it's like they're running the 'Elliston Wine Charity,' or something. Definitely an A.

ELLISTON'S '01 Pinot, at $18, is also quite good (A), and in the French style (that is, light and flavorful, rather than big like California Pinots typically are). Their new '05 Pinot Blanc (what's a Pinot Blanc??) gets an A from me too -- it's a nice alternative to a Chardonnay -- and you know we're all looking for a dependable alternative to regular Chardonnay.

FENESTRA'S White Riesling ($14) is nicely off-dry, well worth a taste. Why they call it White Riesling, I couldn't get them to explain in a way that made sense to me -- I never heard of a red or pink Riesling (is there a gray Riesling?). Maybe they are trying to throw a hint to the White Zin crowd, because of the sweetness. But this is a legitimately sweet wine, with acid to back it up and balance it. You won't soon get tired of this one. Even if you think you don't like sweet wines. (You're wrong, btw; you just aren't tasting the good ones.) A

LES CHENES ESTATES (it means "oak barrel") offered a very nice Roussanne that thankfully lacks that lime-rind bitter note I find offputting in so many Roussannes. (Kent Rosenblum says I should be drinking those lemony Roussannes with my fish dishes. Hmm.)

LITTLE VALLEY WINERY enjoyed a long line in front of its pourings of raspberry-flavored sparkling wine and almond-flavored sparkling wine, each $15. If you're going to drink inexpensive bubbly--which can often be most uninspiring and sharp--you might as well flavor it. Yes, it's soda pop, but it's refreshing soda pop. Especially when you're standing in front
of a tent in the middle of a park in California. (WESTOVER VINEYARDS served a "Rose Palomares" raspberry-flavored sparkling wine that was likewise fun to drink.)

LONGEVITY WINES -- Last year's most notable new winery, Longevity continues to knock the ball out of the park with its slowly expanding lineup. They introduced a Lodi-sourced Barbera this year that is very silky--Phil and Debra Long seem to specialize in silky, as that's the word I've also used to describe their tasty Zinfandels. I really like this Barbera--A. They also showed a new 08 Chenin Blanc, priced at $18, that I rate an A -- I am newly enthused about this underappreciated grape and glad to see Longevity trying it. If you are, as I say, looking for an alternative to Chardonnay, you really should look at the few Chenin Blancs out there. Some are happy surprises.

OCCASIO, a brand-new winery (only two weeks old), is making a Sauvignon Blanc ('08 Livermore Valley Del Arroyo Vineyards, $14) that is done French style--I can't really define the difference from California style or NZ style, but it's distinctively and deliciously different, and worth a try -- I give it an A.

(Bear in mind, you're seeing all these "A"s because I'm just highlighting the wines I liked best.)

RYHAN ESTATE VINEYARDS, in their second year, offers a red blend they call Rouge-Sang--no idea what that's supposed to mean, but it's a smooth-drinking blend of Cab, an Italian grape called Refusco, and Petit Syrah. At $20, this earns an A rating from me too.

Ryhan's Chardonnay, the '07 from Lodi, is also worth mentioning, nice and round, a treat at $15. This is another one of those Chardonnays for people, like me, who don't especially like Chardonnays.

Speaking of Chardonnays worth drinking, the always-interesting THOMAS COYNE WINERY served an offbeat-tasting version; though it is subjected to full malolactic fermentation and medium oak, it didn't taste like a typical Char at all. You ought to try it. I didn't get the price, but Coyne isn't over the top.

Coyne also served up a very nice, smooth '05 Cabernet at $20.


CUDA RIDGE -- Named for owner Larry Dino's favorite car, a purple Barracuda -- Cuda Ridge says it makes "Bordeaux-style wines with a California twist" -- no, I don't know what he means by that exactly, but the wines he and his wife, Margie, are making are very good, pretty much across the board. Of especial note is their Cab, very balanced, with a long finish--long finishes seem their specialty, and it's a good one; and the Cuda Amis dessert wine, an '01 Petit Syrah blend. Yum.

OCCASIO WINERY just opened two weeks ago with their very small lot wines -- some so small they refer to them as "micro lots" -- a few barrels. Try their Sauv Blanc before it's gone.


Of course, I coudn't get to all the 21 wineries showing at the Harvest Village area, let alone the other nearly-20 wineries elsewhere in the Livermore Valley -- so I tried to pay attention mainly to wineries I don't know, or who only started up recently, because new is great fun.

So I skipped Bent Creek Winery, for example, though in the past I've especially liked their Zin ports and Petite Syrah ports. I missed Concannon and Wente and Westover and Page Mill and Chouinard and Crooked Vine and White Crane, all wineries where I've tasted wonderful wines in the past.

Some of the winery booths I did manage to hit:

BODEGAS AGUIRRE, a nice Petite Sirah with pepperiness but none of that PS bitterness I hate. It's $24; they also offer a $29 Reserve and a $32 Grand Reserve of the PS. The '04 Cab, at $24, was round, rich, and smooth; I'd call it an A.

CEDAR MOUNTAIN's '06 Merlot, $22, was an A taste too. No notes: It was just good.

EAGLE RIDGE offered an '06 Cab that was OK at $28, and a $25 '06 Zin that was very pleasant, and an '05 Petit at $29 that had an acidic note some might like, but not me especially. B's for all.

I tried a lot of whites at first, before hitting the reds. ECKART's Viognier was OK (B), with nice aroma. Funny thing: You go around trying all the whites first, at the end of which you really really want a red! Your palate craves that tannic kick!

EL SOL WINERY had a lot of people trying their "Oops'sie" red, a random blend of a number of reds that I forgot to write down because I was drinking it. They were clearing them out at $20 for a four-pack. (I love strange blends! Retzlaff, I think it was, one year had a blend consisting of the butt ends of all the barrels they had left over after making their main wines; they gave it some amusing Italian slang name, and it was delicious!)

El Sol was also selling what they called on their label "California Champagne," which I thought was a good way to have the French branding cops bearing down on you, but they didn't seem to think it a problem. I'm guessing they're wrong; good thing they have such small quantities - by the time the Frogs have noticed, they'll be all sold.

In addition to the terrific White Reisling (!), Fenestra has a Portugese white, Verdelho -- Fenestra loves making Portugese-grape varietels! I thought it was OK. B.

TAMAS ESTATES sells a $30 Zercuela, which is a blend of Spanish grapes, that I thought was interesting and worth drinking. B.

Where to find all these and more great wineries in the Livermore Valley? Go to and thrash around for lists, maps, hours, and more. And make a note for next year's Livermore Harvest Wine Celebration -- it's worth our while. And remember: Stick to the big tent in Robertson Park and you'll be fine -- drive out to the other wineries another weekend, they'll welcome you!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Good Sense on Wine Sulfites

From Robin Garr's WineLover's Page email newsletter:

"First, let's get one thing perfectly clear about sulfites in wine: This is a natural process that's been used by winemakers for a couple of thousand years, with the benign purpose of keeping your wine from spoiling before you can drink it.

"With the limited exception of sulfite-sensitive asthmatics, who must avoid sausages, pickles and many other good things in addition to wine, most of us needn't worry about it. If you get a headache or a stuffy nose after drinking wine, you may be allergic to something - very likely the histamines in some red wines, or in the case of hangovers, simple over-indulgence. But it's not the sulfites.

"But the scary warning label, added to wine by government fiat as recently as the 1990s, prompts reactions that range from wary to hysterical among some wine consumers...."


I regularly hear people say they avoid red wines, or certain kinds of red wines, because "they give me a headache." I don't really know what to make of this complaint. I suspect a substantial number are the result simplyi of overindulgence, as Robin says above. The alcohol in the wines, folks, will give you a headache if you drink enough of it. You don't need mysterious evil added chemicals. And some red wines contain a lot of alcohol -- 16% or more in some cases!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Should I Hold Only 'Blind' Tastings?

When you're having a winetasting, this question may come up: Should you always make it a blind tasting, so people aren't influenced by the label/price/reputation? Or should it be an open tasting, so you can educate yourselves about the wines?

It depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

If you are
rating, scoring, ranking the wines, there is considerable evidence (anecdotal as well as scientific studies) that show that knowing the wines you're tasting will affect your perception of what you're tasting and its relative value. So for scoring purposes, you have to taste blind or your results will be worthless.

OTOH, if you are tasting for the sake of
enjoying comparing various wines, or to learn something about the wines, then you can have a non-blind tasting, and in your discussion be sure to ask to what degree everyone feels that their sense of the wine is affected by its reputation, the type of wine it is, how you are "supposed" to feel about wine like that, its price, or even the reputation of the person who brought that bottle to the tasting.

It should prove a revealing discussion, and one with endless interest for future tastings.