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!