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.