Friday, August 27, 2010

Rock Me Baby

Rock Me Baby
By John Engstrom

“Rock me baby, rock me all night long”: So begins B. B. King’s immortal song that could have been the theme of a memorable night of wine tasting. Tricia and David Grodin hosted a meeting of the Pompous Twits at their home recently, and all the wines were from the Rockpile AVA. An AVA, or American Viticultural Area, is a winegrowing region that has satisfactorily demonstrated a characteristic that differentiates it from neighboring winegrowing regions. In Rockpile’s case, it distinguishes itself in two ways. First, the soil is poor and, as you might suspect, very rocky. Also, to be classified as Rockpile, the vineyards must be at over 800 feet above sea level. The Rockpile AVA is northwest of Sonoma’s Dry Creek AVA, and there is some overlap of the two. There are no “old vines” in the Rockpile region. Not because vines weren’t planted there, but because most of the old plantings in the area are now beneath Lake Sonoma. The lake provides a benefit though, because it creates an inversion layer which pulls in cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean, thirteen miles away, which gives the vines the much needed heat respite necessary to achieve balance in the finished wines. Still, the mid-day heat is too much for white wine grapes, which is why only wines from red wine grapes were tasted.

Aperitif: With no white wines, the welcoming wine was a 2009 JC Cellars Rose of Syrah. Possessing more Syrah flavor than some red wine Syrahs, this was a thoroughly enjoyable way to start the evening. $14 / ***+.

First Flight – Cabernet Sauvignon: This flight consisted of the 2005 Stryker Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2003 Paradise Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Carol Shelton Cabernet Sauvignon. There was a vociferous few who thought that the Stryker was the best wine of the night. I was not among them. Neither the Stryker nor the Paradise Ridge had enough fruit component to balance out the heavy dose of tannins inherent in Cabernet Sauvignon, leaving the two wines in question with a dusty feel in the finish that I find off-putting. The Carol Shelton offering, on the other hand, was very enjoyable, because its black currant fruit was much more evident. This may be due to its younger age, or may be due to Carol Shelton’s winemaking ability. Alas, this must have been a limited release, because it does not appear on the Carol Shelton website.
2005 Stryker CS $38 / ***
2003 Paradise Ridge CS $28 / ***
2007 Carol Shelton CS $ 40 / ****

Second Flight – Mauritson Zinfandel: Unlike most wine producers that have one, or at best two sources of Rockpile fruit, Mauritson has several vineyards in the Rockpile AVA, Thus, this flight officially consisted of the 2008 Jacks Cabin Zinfandel, the 2007 Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel and the 2008 Westphall Vineyard Zinfandel. I say officially, because there was accidentally a 2007 Westphall Vineyard Zinfandel that was also poured. Zinfandel seems to be a better choice for Rockpile than Cabernet Sauvignon. It seems to develop more fruit flavors in proportion to the tannin. Rockpile Zinfandels develop an interesting fruit character. It is not unusual to find red raspberry, black raspberry, or Boysenberry fruit characteristics in Zinfandel. Even blackberry is fairly common. Well, in Rockpile, that berry flavor manifests itself as blacker-than-blackberry. This flavor is an extrapolation beyond the realm of comparable berry flavors currently known to mankind. All four of these wines, and indeed, most of the evenings Zinfandels possessed that fruit flavor. The Jacks Cabin was my favorite of this flight, and the evening, because it possessed so many nuanced layers of fruit, spice and tannin in perfect balance. However, as you can tell by the scores assigned, you can’t go wrong with any of these wines.
2008 Mauritson Jacks Cabin Zin $36 / *****
2007 Mauritson Rockpile Ridge Zin $36 / ****
2008 Mauritson Westphall Vineyard Zin $ 36 / ****
2007 Mauritson Westphall Vineyard Zin $36 / ****+

Third Flight – Zinfandel - Assorted Wineries: More Zinfandel, this time from three different wineries but only two different vineyards. The 2008 Hobo Wine Company Rockpile Zinfandel and the 2007 Branham Rockpile Zinfandel both came from Gary Branham’s vineyard in Rockpile. Wow, what a difference in these two wines. The Branham is intense, brooding and redolent of the ultra-blackberry fruit found in the previous fight with a black pepper spice component. The Hobo tastes like that wine mixed fifty-fifty with raspberry Twizzlers. In other words, it has a sweet candy like flavor on top of the usual Rockpile profile, and alas, not in a good way. The third wine in the flight was a 2005 Carol Shelton Zinfandel from the Florence Vineyard. This wine, like the Carol Shelton Cab of the first flight, showed much more Zinfandel fruit flavors than its flight mates, and in great balance. Still, if forced to pick between this and the Branham, it would be the Branham by the narrowest of margins.
2008 Hobo Rockpile (Branham Vyd.) Zin $30 / **
2007 Branham Rockpile Zin $30 / ****+
2005 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Zin (Florence Vyd.) $ 32 / ****+

Fourth Flight – Zinfandel - Assorted Wineries: The final flight, was again Zinfandel from three different wineries. The first and third wines in the flight were from wineries known for sourcing great Sonoma county Zinfandel fruit, Seghesio and Rosenblum. Meanwhile the middle man of the flight, Valdez, like the Carol Shelton of the last flight, uses fruit from the Florence Vineyard. The 2008 Seghesio Rockpile Zinfandel was very close in flavor profile to the Carol Shelton Zinfandel that was poured just before it, while exhibiting more restraint. There is a place for restraint in wine, even Zinfandel, but Rockpile isn’t it. A little too subdued for me. The 2005 Valdez Rockpile Zinfandel, had no such restraint. Its inky purple-black color showed no age whatsoever, but the alcohol was a touch out of balance. The 2006 Rosenblum Rockpile Zinfandel had all the fruit, and balanced alcohol, but there seemed to be a lack in the spice and acid components which made this wine slightly out of whack, thus three very good wines, each just missing that special something to put them over the top, and for me the hardest flight to pick a winner in.
2008 Seghesio Rockpile Zin $36 / ***+
2005 Valdez Rockpile Zin (Florence Vyd.) $35 / ***+
2006 Rosenblum Rockpile Zin (Rockpile Road Vyd.) $ 35 / ***+

If you like your wines intense, stock the Rock.

How I rate wines:

***** = Five Stars = Outstanding wines showing excellent balance, style and distinctive character. These are worth seeking out and purchasing as much as you can afford.

****+ = Four Stars plus = Half-way between Four and Five Stars.

**** = Four Stars = Excellent wines with enough character, finesse and balance to distinguish from the rest. Buy a few bottles, and you can thank me later.

***+ = Three Stars plus = Half-way between Three and Four stars

*** = Three Stars = Very Good wines, but lacking that certain something that makes them special. Buy a bottle or two or three.

**+ = Two Stars plus = Half-way between Two and Three stars

** = Two Stars = Good wine, but nothing exciting. Use it to round out the case for a discount.

*+ = One Star plus = Half-way between One star and Two stars.

* = One Star = Mediocre wines that are adequate to drink, but only if nothing else is available.

## = no stars = Seriously flawed wine.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

5th Annual East Bay (SF) Urban Wine Xperience 2010 (UWX)

By Mac McCarthy

Twenty urban wineries showed their wares at the fifth annual consumer tasting event in Oakland, California, the East Bay area of San Francisco Bay, where the urban winery concept perhaps first took hold. The wines from these small vintners were terrific, many were innovative, and all were fun for a wine lover to try.

This is the fifth year the East Bay Vintner's Alliance   (EBVA) has held this event, and the branding brains have been busy, coming up with an eyecatching "UWX" shorthand (echoing the terminology used for the popular SWSX music festival). I was lucky enough, as an East Bay resident, to discover this gig its first year, and I've been to every one – and I heartily recommend this event to all you Northern Californian wine lovers.

The first few events consisted basically of coordinated open houses and a map – you drove from place to place to try their wines, the advantage being you got a good look at their varied facilities in surprising places – mostly warehouses in industrial areas you wouldn't ordinarily have occasion to cruise, at least not for wines. It definitely made the appeal of urban winemaking obvious: If you buy your grapes from growers (as most winemakers do), you don't need to have your winemaking facility actually in the winegrowing areas – you can have the grapes shipped. Since winemaking facilities need big open spaces, the decaying warehouses in declining urban industrial areas are perfect for this use – and they can be had much cheaper than crush facilities located in pricey Napa or Sonoma.

The annual East Bay event has been a big success, but this year they moved the event indoors, to a building in Jack London Square in Oakland -- thankfully, because I can take the BART instead of driving. 

Naturally, I couldn't test-taste all the fifty or so wines offered -- I don't spit, which limits me (but sure tastes good) – so I focussed on newer wineries and new wine offerings I didn't already know. 

Here are my highlight notes. I don't go overboard in describing the wines, since I think all those popular winereviewer descriptors are largely wasted -- I can't figure out what the things they claim to taste would taste like in a wine, can you? Of course not. 

So I tell you wines I thought were especially fun to drink, and which ones are lighter in style and which heavier, which are beverage wines (sit-down wines best for meals) and which are cocktail, or standup, wines best for parties. 

If any intrigue you, I sure hope you make the effort to find them and try them yourself. (And feel free to comment about it on this blog, the feedback would be great!) These wineries are mostly very small and you won't always find them in your BevMo -- but you can visit the wineries, buy online (if you live in the right state), and join their wine clubs. And when you visit Northern California, it's worth adding this novel "wine area" to your wine-touring plans.

Best of all, these wonderful wines, delicious expressions of enthused winemakers, are mostly priced very reasonably – remember, you're buying 'cult' wines at pre-'cult' prices! Brag to friends about these small-lot wines they are unlikely to have tried. Wine one-upsmanship at $15 to $30 a bottle is a great game!

Some of the notable wines I tasted follow. My pick for winery of the event is Stage Left, whose amazing Syrah and Grenache were delicious beyond words. More on them below.

Blacksmith Cellars Torrontes, Alta Mesa, 2008 - $15, 12.8% alcohol – What a wonderful aroma! Flowers and lychee! Tropical fruit and flowers in the taste, nice mid-body, good balance, good finish – winemaker suggests this would be a good wine with spicy foods, curries and wasabi (not me, baby, I don't like either of those – but beef & broccoli, and I'm there!).

Blacksmith's Chenin Blanc, North Coast, 2008, $15 -- Blacksmith is one of the few high-end wineries that makes a Chenin Blanc, so I looked forward to a taste – especially since I did not care for last year's bottling! This year, however, gets four stars – not much nose, but nice and clean with just enough crispness to make a good table wine. The winemaker said this batch came from 90-year-old vines that were stressed (winemakers stress some types of vines to force them to produce more concentrated flavors). Twenty percent of the wine was held back from malolactic, so when it was added back the wine would have that crisp clean flavor.

Aubin Cellars  French Columbard, 2008, $12, 12% – Not a wine you see much any more, French Columbard was a popular grape for jug wines back in the day. This crop was grown and bottled in France and imported – Aubin likes to make some of its wines in California, and import others that are hard to find here, adding a nice touch of interest to their lineup. I found this 4-star white bright, with a nice nose, tropical fruit and apple flavors, with a nice finish. This is a good summer wine, what I call a Deck Wine – that will also work as a beverage wine (i.e. with food).

Carica Wines is new to me, which is always fun – their Sauvignon Blanc is from the noteworthy Kick Ranch in Sonoma and is offered at $21 – a bit stiff, I thought. It's also a 4-star, though, with a nice fruity tang and enough acid for food, and at 14.8% alcohol, high for a white, it's got a kick (pun!). Winemaker Charles Dollbaum says the winery is six years old and had been using a custom-crush facility  in Santa Rosa and recently moved into the Rock Wall Wine Co. hive in Alameda.

Eno Wines'  Viognier, 2008, $18, grown in Santa Barbara County, is dry but the tropical fruit is so pronounced that it gives the impression of being sweet (not a bad thing at all); it has a nice round mid-palate without being cloying. I give it three stars.

JC Cellars,  one of the early urban winemakers, offered a 2008 Roussanne (75%)-Marsanne (25%) blend they dub The First Date, $28 – the grapes are from the Fess Parker property and the Stagecoach. It has a faint but interesting nose. I understand this is a popular wine (they must be experiencing demand to price it at $28!), but I didn't like it. I have a hard time with Roussannes and also with Marsannes, not sure why.

Urban Legends , one of my favorite new wineries, has a newly bottled 2009 Sauv Blanc ($18) from Lake County, that I liked, and give four stars. It's a nice calm wine, with balanced acid. Not a term you hear describing wines very often, but I felt that way tasting it. Winemaker Steve Shaffer says it's done South African style, and calls it a "plush" wine, with a sense of pineapples and papaya. I quite liked it: four stars.

R&B Cellars,  with its jazz-inspired names, had 2007 "Serenade in Blanc," a Sauv Blanc from Lake County (Mendocino) that was mellow and even-handed, not overboard in either fruit or acid, with a bit of creaminess; nicely balanced, even at 13.5% alcohol. It wasn't my favorite of all (I give it three stars) but it is a bargain, at a mere $11, if you can believe it.

Prospect 772, which is a member of the East Bay Vintner's Alliance though they hang out in Angel's Camp, up in the Sierras, offered me a nice little Syrah-Grenache Rose they called Baby Doll (they like cute names too). This is a 13.5% wine made in the saignee process (whereby they bleed off some of the juice when first crushing the grapes, which yields rose on the one hand and more concentrated reds on the other). It was cofermented with the Grenache, and was *flavorful,* with a wonderful nose—I give it four stars without hesitation. (Really, you have to drink more roses! They are more varied and more delicious than you've been misled to believe!) The wine is $18 and worth it. The winemaker bragged to me that they were the only ones at this event who grow their own grapes too! But they only make 40 cases of this stuff, so you'd better get going. (They also said Jeff Cohn of JC Cellars helps in the winemaking process.)

Rock Wall Wines,  Shauna Rosenblum's burgeoning winery and custom crush facility, had a Chardonnay, a 2009 Russian River Reserve, priced at $30 (!) – it was done in new oak, 50% of it given malolactic fermentation. It was rich – I was told this was due to spending lots of time stirring on the lees. However, I personally did not like this white – there was an odd note to it that I can't identify. Two stars. Maybe it's just me – at $30, somebody must like it.

Urbano Cellars' 2008 Vin Rose from Green Valley in Solano County is, as is customary from this innovative winemaker, a bold and unexpected wine made from Valdiguie  -- apparently the grape from which Napa Gamay, that old-time jug wine, was made! Somehow they found a vineyard with some ragged 70-year-old head pruned, dry farmed vines were hanging on, and cleaned it up to produce this dry, crisp white wine with a bit of strawberry to it. It was interesting, and $14; I give it three stars because I'm not sure the wine is quite as interesting to drink as its story is to tell. Good price, though.

Time for the Reds!

I am getting to like white wines I'm discovering more and more, especially with the innovations being made in Chardonnay – funny, I didn't see a single Chard at this event! – there is nothing like a dozen whites to make you really, *really* want a glass of *red!*

As one would think customary, I tasted whites first, then moved to the reds. I think next time, however, I will change my approach – I will at the next event taste two or four reds, then a white – see if the white clears my palate for the reds, and yet can still stand up flavorwise. Anybody had experience with this? (What makes me wonder about it is the well established but apparently not well known fact that if you're drinking big reds and your palate becomes fatigued, as it will, a glass of white bubbly will clear your palate like magic! So I wonder if a white still wine will have magical powers to any similar degree.)

First up was a Rosenblum Snow's 2007 Lake Syrah – the very definition of a big red (when made in California, at least). This $25 darling had that classic Syrah nose that goes on for hours! Wow! It was rich beyond belief, with an interesting citric tang (?). Alcohol is 14.5%.

I then tried a Cerruti Cellars (new to me!) 2009 Merlot rose called "Mar Blanc" with grapes from Alexander Valley. This wine has 1% residual sugar, just enough to make it sweet and delicious; it's $12. I then tried their 2006 Cuvee Red Blend from Napa Valley, from 35-year-old vines priced at $15. However, afternoon had settled in and the wine had gotten warm and that made it hard to enjoy it.

Dashe Cellars  offered their $25 2008 McFadden Farm/Potter Valley Dry Riesling, one of their pride and joys. My problem is, I like my Rieslings a little off-dry.

Up next was the newbie, Stage Left Cellars  – they aren't actually new, having been in Paso Robles for a few years and recently moved up to the Bay Area and joined the club here – the first wine of theirs I tried knocked me completely off my feet! The 2007 "The Scenic Route" is Syrah from the Rogue River Valley in Oregon – this $38 wine had the wonderful Syrah nose and followed up with knockout fruit in the middle that left me floored! It was rich, yet, as the winemaker aptly put it, "light on its feet." Exactly! I give this delicious wine five stars!

Then they served me their 2006 Grenache, which has 8% Mourvedre added (cofermented). This was another fruit-centric wowser, this time bright cherry flavors. Another five-star tasty delight. Understand, these aren't fruit-forward Zinfandels (which I also love), the fruit was bright, not jammy. Both these wines were the very definition of flavorful! A shame the Syrah is $38 and the Grenache is a heart-stopping $48!

That set me reeling off in a good mood to continue with more reds I hadn't tried yet. Andrew Lane Wines  had a 2007 Petite Sirah from Napa that was not bitter, thank you, but tasty; $28 and four stars. (Petits are sometimes unpleasantly bitter.) They also showed a 2007 Cab Franc from Oakville in Napa, at a stiff $45; it was good too. (Lot more people making Cab Francs these days, have you noticed?)

Aubin Cellars,  back again but this time with reds, had an 07 Carneros-sourced Pinot Noir at $24 that was good, but I found their 06 Sonoma Mountain Syrah had a bitter note.

I tried Blacksmith's 07 North Coast Claret, in this case a blend of Cab, Cab Franc, and Merlot ($20) – it had nice black fruit flavors in a rich base. Tasty!

Ehrenberg Cellars, one of the Rock Wall facility small wineries, had an 08 Contra Costa Zin that is in the light, un-Zinny style, but flavorful; four stars, $15. They offered barrel tastings of their 09 Lodi Petite Sirah that I found interesting, rich, but with a little bit of that Petite bitterness. Futures case price is $288.

I stopped by Eno Wines again because I overheard people talking up their Pinot. The 07 "The One" Fairview Road Ranch Pinot Noir is $35 and didn't impress me at first; but as it opened up in my glass, it grew on me, a lot, all the way up to four stars.

Irish Monkey,  one of my favorites for their amazing Cabs (and their many curious and interesting blends) had a 2008 "Chateaux du Lovall," a blend of Zin, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Merlot, and maybe one more grape but I can't quite make out my handwriting – I had been drinking, you see, and my handwriting is physician-like at the best of times. Anyway, this $31 wine was ok. Their Lodi-sourced 08 Mourvedre didn't really seem like a Mourvedre, but it was tasty anyway; $22.

I had a tipple of R&B Cellars' 07 "Swingsville" Zin, which is quite tasty until you realize with a shock that it's only $11 – then it seems even more tasty!

For this event (only!) I skipped JC Cellars, Rosenblum, and Rock Wall's other reds because I visit them so often I know their offerings, and at this point I was just running out of steam, so I also had to miss Periscope Cellars , Tayerle Wine,  and Adams Point, which makes surprisingly good fruit wines.  I did make it a point to stop by Urban Legend's table and sample, once again, their 08 Clarksburg Barbera, at $24 one of the best Barberas you'll ever drink. Five stars, and a good finish to a wonderful afternoon of wine!!

I've been to all five of these annual events, and I intend to come to every subsequent one. The winemakers I already know continue to knock out wonderful wines, and every year there are one or two new wineries doing fresh, new, wonderful things in the wine way! It's irresistible!

And Two Last Things!

Before I go, I have to mention two non-winery things at this show. The first is Vice Chocolates, which hands out yum! heavy-duty gourmet chocolates every year and I always end up buying a bagful. 

And the other is an intriguing idea I'll have to try one of these days: East Bay Winery Bike Tours! You go out with a tour group and a tour leader, bike around to the various East Bay wineries, taste their wines, get a box lunch to eat on the lawn somewhere, and enjoy the great weather and the great wines. How is that for an idea!! (They do similar bike tours in Napa, too.) Cool!