Monday, November 21, 2011

How To Find A Tasty French Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 17, 2011

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

By Mac McCarthy,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 16, 2011

Lake County Wines: Overlooked, Underpriced, Pretty Tasty!

Lake County Wines: Overlooked, Underpriced, Pretty Tasty!

By Mac McCarthy,

Top Line

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

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

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

The Best and Most Interesting of the Lake County Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosa d'Oro's Peitro Buttitta

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

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

Bottom Line

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Urban Wine Xperience VI: There's Some Mighty Tasty Wines from Oakland!

By Mac McCarthy

For its 6th year, the East Bay Vintners Alliance hosted its Urban Wineries public tasting event for 18 small, in some cases boutique, wineries, all from the San Francisco East Bay communities of Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, and Alameda. And once again they proved that fine, top-notch wines can be produced in an urban environment of former aircraft hangers, submarine repair depots, and light-industrial buildings.

(The group also hosts a visit-the-wineries version of this event in the Spring.)

Rather than attempt a run-down of every wine and every winemaker, let's focus on the most notable, tastiest, and most-recommended wines served that sunny August day at Jack London Square. I give prices where I found them.

Blacksmith Cellars' 2009 North Coast Chenin Blanc was a happy surprise to start my day -- I am always on the lookout for a decent American Chenin Blanc -- a grape long used in California to make jug wines, but in the right hands a delicious, bright glass of white delight. Last year, I did not care for Blacksmith's CB effort, but this year's serving was quite delicious! $15. Recommended, especially if you're ready to venture beyond more popular whites.

Chis Ehrenberg
Ehrenberg Cellars poured two especially noteworthy big reds: its 2009 Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel -- that's Shenandoah Valley, California, folks -- and a 2009 Lodi Petite Syrah -- Chris Ehrenberg really knows how to turn out a Petite, I'll tell you; this isn't the first excellent vintage of that grape from this guy.

JRE Wines (John Robert Eppler Wines) showed one of those crazy red blends that California's small winemakers seem to love experimenting with, combining unexpected grapes to produce something quite delicious: In the case of their "Petite Rouge" blend of Syrah, Petite Syrah, Cab, and Petit Verdot. An odd mix but -- delicious.  

Periscope Cellars, named for its original location in an old WWII submarine repair shop, likewise offered an interesting blend they call Mashup -- odd lots of various grapes, resulting in a taste that grew on me as I sipped. They also had a 2008 Sierra Foothills "Nil's" Cabernet  ($40) that was very, very nice -- actually worth the price. (They enjoy funny names for some of their wines: Deep 6, Evil Eye, Yes We Cab!)

R&B Cellars was showing its 2007 (!) Swingsville Zin, which is really great. And somehow the flavor seems to perk up even more when you find out that it's only $12 -- the wine tastes like a much more expensive Zin. 

Rock Wall Wines had a killer Zin also: a 2009 Monte Rosso -- a magical vineyard in Zinfandel circles -- and the wine, $30, was indeed magically rich, intense, and delicious in a way only Zinfandel can be. This is Zin made the way Kent Rosenblum makes it at its best (his daughter, Shawna, is the winemaker at Rock Wall and obviously learned a thing or three at her daddy's knee).

Rock Wall also showed off its 2009 Tannat 'Palindrome,' $22, a wine you don't see here very often. The grape is used to make reds and roses in France, and Armagnac brandy. It's often overly tannic, but Rosenblum used the latest technique, micro-oxygenation, in a successful bid to tame the tannins. The result is a dense, killer Big Red -- Shawna told me she heard it described as "Petite Syrah and Syrah on steroids," and that's a good phrase. Zowie! (Shawna kept referring to one of the flavor components as "rose hips" but, as with so many wine-geek tasting terms, I don't know what rose hips taste like, so it's no help to me....)

Rosenblum Cellars offered a 2008 Cullinane Reserve Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley ($45). This has always been one of my favorite Rosenblum Zinfandels (and one of its very first wines), though it's produced in such limited quantities that it's rarely served as such tastings. Lucky me, they served it this time, and it was as I have always remembered: the perfect Zin. Not quite as jammy as a good Rockpile year, but extraordinarily rich, dense, and flavorful. (They actually put a little Petite Syrah in this one, presumably to up the brightness a bit.) You will do yourself a favor if you can acquire a bottle of this stuff, even at that price.

Finally, Stomping Girl was pouring some of the few Pinot Noirs of the day, so its table was crowded, and for good reason. All three of its PNs are tasty: 2009 Lauterbach Hill Vineyard (what an aroma!), 2009 Beresini Vineyard (smooth, with a nice finish), and 2009 Corona Creek Vineyard (aroma, nice finish). Worth searching out.

(Why do I only say "aroma" without characterising it? Because a surprising number of wines simply have no particular aroma at all. They taste great, in many cases, but there's zero nose. So a wine that has nose -- presumably a nice aroma, you understand, rather than a funky one -- is worth making a note. In this case, Pinot Noir, when made Burgundy-style, has an aroma that is divine -- good ones you can sniff for minutes on end before you finally get around to actually sipping it.)

I didn't get a chance to stop by all the booths, but a few days later I went over to Urban Legend and tasted through their selection, with happy results. I'll post about that interesting tasting separately.

And once again we taste the proof that the improbable venue of the East Bay hosts some wonderful wines to compete with the best California offers. It's worth seeking these vintners out on the Web, and if you're in Northern California, it's worth making a pilgrimage to these wineries. Visit the group web site for a list, and maps, and hours (many are open for tasting only on weekends).

And tell 'em Mac sent you.

FEEDBACK: Above, I refer to a flavor component described as 'rose hips,' which means nothing to me. I often find, among the dozens of flavor words used in high-end wine reviews, few that are helpful, and few that I can detect in the same wine. (I remember one notable reviewer who claimed to taste in one particular wine, among the two-dozen or so elements, 'white tobacco.' I laughed out loud.)

Do you have favorite wine-reviewer terms you find of no value to you, overused, and under-helpful? Share with me in Comments, below!

(And while you're here, sign up for this blog to be alerted to future posts!)

--Mac McCarthy

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Event: Urban Wine Uncorked - Panel plus Tasting

The Commonwealth Club of Californis hosts in Lafayette (near Walnut Creek) later in August a combo panel discussion and tasting of wines from urban winemakers. It should be a fun event; I'll be there. Spread the word.
Location: Lafayette Veterans Memorial Hall, 3780 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette

Time: 6 p.m. check-in, 6:30 p.m. program, 7:30 p.m. wine tasting reception

 $22 standard, $12 members, $7 students (with valid ID). Must be 21+ to attend

Move over, Napa and Sonoma. Urban winemakers in Oakland, San Francisco, and beyond source their fruit from the best vineyards in California and around the globe, turning the grapes into world-class juice in their metropolitan facilities. Not being tied to the land gives these urban artisans the freedom to experiment, producing small batches of lovingly crafted wines that are original, local and affordable. Drink up and indulge your inner oenophile and locavore as our panel of wine wizards explores this urban trend growing in your own backyard.

Panel Discussion: 
Derek Rohlffs, Proprietor and Winemaker, Bravium Wines 

Sasha Verhage, Winemaker and Proprietor, Eno Wines
Christopher Lynch, Winemaker and Co-founder, Temescal Creek Urban Vintners ; Student, UC Davis Viticulture and Oenology program
Marilee Shaffer, Winemaker and Proprietor, Urban Legend Cellars
Carl Sutton, Owner and Winemaker, Sutton Cellars
Courtney Cochran, Owner, Your Personal Sommelier; Author, Hip Tastes: The Fresh Guide to Wine and Hip Tastes blog - Moderator
After the discussion, enjoy tastings provided by East Bay wineries including Urban Legend Cellars, Bravium Wines, Eno Wines, Temescal Creek Urban Vintners,  Rock Wall Wine Company, Sutton Cellars, De Novo Wines, Ledgewood Creek Winery, Captain Vineyards, Vincenza Ranch Vineyard, Bullfrog Creek Vineyard, and The Winery SF!
I'll be there -- Will you? Post a Comment here -- and if you go, tell me how you liked it!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Wine Shoppers Need Point Scores -- Because They Can't Understand Our Reviews

By Mac McCarthy

Respected wine guru Steve Heimoff posted a spirited defense of numerical wine scores in wine reviews -- Defending Point Scores--Again! , taking on some of the stock complaints from the growing chorus of critics of the idea of giving wines numbered or lettered scores. (There's even an anti-scoring manifesto circulating.) Heimoff 's common-sense counterarguments are well worth reading.

Weighing in on the topic, my view is that the attacks on scoring are completely pointless. The reason is that number-haters offer no practical solution to the perceived problem.

They complain that the wine shoppers act like sheep, following the scores they see given to wines without really appreciating the subtleties of the wines and even of the reviewers doing the scoring.

So what's the fix? Leave the sheep to wander the aisles unguided?

No -- the wine shoppers should be reading the full narrative reviews, rather than jumping right to the scores. That way they can fully grasp the wines being reviewed, and make a sound judgment.
Aw, baloney!

At least wine shoppers can understand a score -- even if not the subtleties between, say, an 89 and a 90. Trying to decipher the blather that passes for wine reviews, on the other hand, is not something I'd wish on a poor ordinary drinker.

The language in most wine reviews is useless to most wine drinkers. The flavors described are unfamiliar - there are often an improbable number of flavors, leaving the ordinary mortal wondering what the heck the reviewer was drinking.

(Robert Parker once described a flavor note in a wine he was reviewing as "white tobacco." White tobacco -- what the heck does that taste like? How is that helping anyone shopping for wine?)
Buyers grab onto scores because it's something they think they can understand. It's not their fault the scores aren't as helpful a guide as one might think.

And let's face reality: Eliminating scores will not encourage ordinary drinkers to boldly strike out into new unscored territory and discover new wines, new makers, new flavors -- instead, untutored wine shoppers will retreat to brand names. And how will that benefit anyone?

If we're going to argue about scores, let's argue about how wines are reviewed overall -- and figure out how to review wines not just for those among us with wine cellars, but also for the expanding population of new wine enthusiasts eager for guidance in buying a decent bottle of wine. Let's at least think in terms of which audiences we review for -- some wines aim at the sophisticated drinker; some wines are approachable by the broader market, and can be appreciated by them. In my post "What To Drink (For Beginners)" I spell out reds, roses, and whites that are easy for beginning wine drinkers to approach, appreciate, enjoy (and that they can easily find without knowing much about wine brands). In another post, I add "Wines Not Safe for Beginners To Start With"  just to drive the point home.

Maybe when we review wines -- unless we're writing only for the sophisticated elites among us -- we could start pointing out whether a wine is something a beginner or a less experienced drinker would appreciate.
And for God's sake, can we figure out a way to describe what we're tasting so that another human being can guess at what flavors we're talking about? Without having to go to Sommelier  school?

I admit, I struggle to find useful things to say (besides "Yum! That was good!"). This is not easy. But it's better to struggle with this, than to continue the pointless, doomed campaign to eliminate wine point scores.

What do you think? Like scores? Hate 'em? Have better -- practical -- ideas? Add your comments below!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Some Wines *Not* Safe for Beginners To Start With

By Mac McCarthy

Editor, SavvyTaste

Reason: These wines take getting used to -- They are dense, intense, tannic, and acidic -- or they are expensive and risky. Stay away until you've got some experience under your belt....

ZAP Festival San Francisco 2010
Zinfandel Yeah!
Zinfandel – Me, I love big, jammy red Zinfandels — heck, I volunteer at the big ZAP Zinfandel festival every January in San Francisco, where 300 winemakers serve up over 800 Zinfandels! But others find it overwhelming. Exceptions: Any relatively inexpensive red Zinfandel with an aggressive, hard-hitting name intended to give you the impression that this is one bad Zin, baby! — is likely to be light and easy to drink — the name is a marketing gimmick. For example, Seven Deadly Zins, Earthquake Zin, and Cardinal Zin (best label ever, though) are fun and easy to drink, fruity, and affordable (thank goodness!). (This is similar to the marketing-wine rule that any wine with a fun, jokey, smartalecky name and picture is probably junk wine that, however, *tastes great*! Not sophisticated — just fun.
Jean Edwards Cellars 2007 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon
Jean Edwards Napa Cab: If you like Cabs, this is an example of one you'll really like.
Cabernet Sauvignon– is usually made as a Big Red — heavy, tannic, sometimes expensive, and highly variable in flavor and style. You won’t know what you’re buying, so drink someone else’s until you find brands that work for you.
Merlot – Can be absolutely delicious when made right, but bland and mediocre if not; unfortunately, the best-tasting Merlot is the most expensive Merlot.
French Bordeaux and Burgundy – Because the good ones are expensive, the really good ones are very expensive, and the affordable ones vary all over the map in flavor and quality. Don’t jump into this world yet; drink OPB — Other People’s Bordeaux.
Argentinean Malbecs – Can be as big and intense and amazing as a great California Cab — but, unfortunately, just as costly. If you’re willing to spend the bucks, go ahead, you will rarely be disappointed. (Which is wonderful, because a couple of decades ago, Argentinian Malbec was dreck!)
Champagne – In general, the best are expensive; and surprisingly many people don’t really care for the taste of champagne, even good champagne — it has an acidic edge that you might not like. If you have to buy Champagne, go for the Champagne-type bubblies made elsewhere in France: Clairett de Die Cave Carod, for example, can cost as little as $13(!). Cremant d’Alsace is another winner. And there’s a Champagne-style bubbly made by a winery called Gruet in, of all places, New Mexico, that costs as little as $8.50 — yet tastes great. (If you like Champagne, that is — see above.) Can you believe that? I’ve tasted it, and it’s true.
China – The best-known red wine from China is from a winery called Great Wall. Really. Its  Cabernet Sauvignon is awful, truly awfuo. One day, maybe soon, China will produce good wines for export; we’ll be glad.
California Syrah – I love West-Coast Syrahs — because they are made in a dense, big-red, intense, fruit-forward style that I love. As a beginning wine drinker, though, you may find it as overwhelming as big red Zins. However, Syrah can also be made in lighter styles, and is the backbone of the blend of wines that makes up Rhone-style reds, where the mix is much easier on the palate.
Port – Port wines and the related styles of Sherry can be a traumatic experience for beginning wine drinkers. They put brandy in it! And you can taste it! Arrgh!
An exception might be Madeira – maybe. It’s just as dense, intensely sweet, even raisiny, yet not as harsh. Have a sip.

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