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.

Blind Tasting: Experts Can't Identify Classic Reds

For one of my winetasting groups, The Pompous Twits, I hosted the March event each year, and my theme one year was a blind tasting called "Classic Reds," featuring two examples of each of seven classic wine types: a couple of Cabs, a couple of Merlots, a French-style Pinot and a West-Coast-style Pinot, a big Zin, two Bordeaux, one in each style, an Australian Shiraz, and so on.

Your job was simple: Identify the grape. Is it a zin? a cab? a merlot? Or in the case of the French wines, is it a Bordeaux? a Burgundy?

Two years running, 15 wines, 15 participants -- a five-way tie for first place with -- five right. Yes, the top scorers--among people who are longtime wine buffs, visit the wineries and the Chateaux, know the winemakers, really know their stuff--got a third of them right. Correction: Guessed a third of them right.

This being The Pompous Twits, they weren't mad about it -- they were amused. "I was wrong about that one? No kidding? Oh well -- Pour me some more, it was good!"

I thought surely you should be able to tell a Rosenblum Zin from an Australian Shiraz! No, you can't. Maybe if I tell you that one of these two glasses is a zin and the other a shiraz, yes you could figure which is which. But you can't pick out the Zin from 15 wines! Astonishing. Which is why I repeated the experiment the following year, with the same results.

Mind you, these were each classics of their kind--I wasn't pouring weak-kneed Zins to confuse you into thinking they were Merlots--no, these were Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zins, as big as they come, and the others were the same: When you think of a wine, this is the one you're thinking of.

Supposedly highly trained professionals can tell wines apart, and even tell you details down to an improbable level. But short of them -- the other 99.9% of us can't.