Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Two Most Interesting Wines at the East Bay Urban Wine Trail last month!

The two most interesting wines at the April 2011 Passport to the East Bay Wine Trail tasting event, which took place in several winery locations in the San Francisco East Bay -- specifically Oakland and Alameda -- were a Pinot from a new winery called Stomping Girl Wines, and an unexpected reworking of Urban Legend's awesome and award-winning Barbera Rose.

There were many other great-tasting wines, too, and I'll get to them later. For now, let's reflect on  the wild ride that small wineries can take you on. It's their bold vision, after all, their ability to make a wine any way they want because they aren't beholden to volume store chains (they can't actually sell into giant chains, so they might as well do what they please) that makes them so very interesting to us wine adventurers. This is the special joy of boutique wineries: You never know what they'll come up with. It's an adventure.

And sometimes the adventure bites you on the ass, when a winemaker decides to completely change your favorite wine from last year. 

Which is what Marilee and Steve Shaffer did to me this year at their Urban Legend Cellars on 4th St. in Oakland, our first stop on the tasting trail: They changed how they make their Barbera Rose, which last year was my favorite rose at the RAP rose event. It had huge fruit and was bursting with flavor. They sold out, it was so tasty -- not bad performance for a rose!

Whadja Do To My Wine!!
This year Steve said he wanted to make it in a more spare style -- and sure enough, all that fruit was gone, baby! It was still a good rose, but -- it was very much like a fine Loire rose, reserved, thoughtful, pleasant. Why would you do that to your fabulous, unique Barbera rose, Steve? I can get Loire roses anywhere -- I can't get Urban Legend rose anywhere else! Steve simply shrugged: He has a different vision for where he wanted his wine to go. 

I was crushed.

Temporarily, as it turned out. 

The following month I saw Steve and Marilee at the RAP (Rose Avengers and Producers) event at the Butterfly Restaurant in San Francisco, and from a sense of duty went over to taste the new-wave rose again. And got a big surprise! It was wonderful!

It was not the rose of last year -- it was a new rose, different in style, but entirely delicious on its own terms: flavorful, aromatic, delicious -- wait, I said delicious already: It was -- well it is delicious! And the aroma!

What happened? Say, Steve -- when I tasted your rose last month -- had you just bottled it? "Yes; that week." 

Oh, well! It was still in bottle shock! And it only took a month to completely change its character in the bottle -- from fine, yes, ok, fine -- to Wow, I love it!

What a world!

It's the 2010 Rosato di Barbera,  it's $18 and worth it, they only made 180 cases because they like to torture people, and I will be buying some for myself when I go by there in a few days, so you'd better hurry and go there or order from the Web site, where you'll find a bunch of other good reds and a Sauv Blanc that ain't bad at all, either.

Stomping Girl Wines - Now THAT'S a Pinot!
Because many of the tiny wineries in the urban areas have no tasting rooms of their own, they share with others, and during the East Bay Urban Wine Trail event this spring the East Bay VIntner's association arranged to have each tasting-room-owning member host two or three or more other wineries too. 

This also made it more convenient for the visitors, as it reduced the number of stops -- there are two dozen wineries in the Oakland-Berkeley-Alameda area! They crammed them all into six venues. That was great. (But there was a bright idea gone astray -- they offered a bus to take you from place to place, but miscalculated with only one bus, which took forever to show up and was so overcrowded I expected people hanging off the roof.)

Urban Legend, my first stop, hosted three other wineries: Adams Point and Urbano Cellars, whom I know, and a brand-new winery I had never heard of and still know little about: Stomping Girl.

They showed three Pinots. Most wonderful of the three was the 2009 Corona Creek Vineyard, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. The aroma was Burgundian. The taste was gentle, flavorful, with a looong finish. All I could think was, "Now that's a Pinot!" It's what you want to get in a Burgundy Pinot at its best, often pay big bucks for, and often get disappointed by. But this one is no disappointment, and it's $34. This knocked me off my feet. I have got to buy me some of this stuff. Maybe I'll sell my car....

They showed two other Pinots that were also good, only overshadowed by the Corona. A 2009 Lauterbach Hill, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, $38, was rich, complex, with a really, really long finish -- I call it 'A Thinking Man's Wine': You take a sip and then you have to stand there thinking about it for a while! This is a Wow A++ wine, only outdone by its Corona sister.

In this company, their 2009 Beresini Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir ($34) was good, but not as impressive.

You can buy the wines online at or get them at various  places in the Berkeley area, or pick some up at their offices in Berkeley. And read on the site about how they got the name.

I'll cover more of Urban Legend's wines and those of the other Wine Trail wineries in my next post!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How I Learned To Love White Wines (Too)

I've always been a red-wine guy. The kind of whites that pass by at parties and in bars have always seemed boring, bland, and uninteresting. Chardonnays in particular, but also Pinot Grigos. Sauv Blancs from New Zealand set up a brief flutter because their stony-brooks tang was a nice change. But even they bore after a while.

The Change came subtly at first. At an industry Bordeaux tasting, I tried some white Bordeaux and was greatly surprised - they tasted really good!

Then I fast talked myself into trying a bottle of Cyndy Cosco's Passaggio Unoaked Chardonnay - and jumped out of my chair! This was delicious! Full of flavor, fruit, interest! Wow, where has this been all my life?

Starting last year I've been making a point to start with the whites at the industry wine events before heading to the reds. I've discovered two things: There are a lot of winemakers trying their hardest to do something interesting with white wines. And there are still a lot of boring whites out there.

But the fact that there are so many interesting and different whites, especially Chardonnays, is a wonderful discovery!


So I made a fast trip to Rock Wall Wines' event in May celebrating the opening of their new tasting room determined to follow my Give-White-Wine-A-Chance rule. And am I glad.

Rock Wall Wine Co., In Bldg 24 of the old Alameda Naval Air Station on the island of Alameda in San Francisco Bay, is both Shauna Rosenblum's Zin-focused winery, and a custom wine facility with nine boutique wineries. I tasted a Chard from Rock Wall, and three very different Sauvignon Blancs from Carica, R&B, and JRE.

The Rock Wall tasting room
Rock Wall  2009 Chardonnay Reserve Russian River Lone Oak Vineyard was an absolutely delicious Chardonnay, that, while oaked, rivals Cosco's Passaggio for tastiness. It has a wonderful bouquet, and tropical flavors plus apple - very pleasant, and as it opened up it just got more delicious. $30, and they only made 643 cases this year.

That sent me over to the other wineries serving that day, looking for more whites: I found three Sauvignon Blancs, each very different in style and flavor from the next! What a wonderful treat!

Dollhaus of Carica
Carica  2008 Sauvignon Blanc ($21) is made with 25% of an SB clone called Sauvignon Musque, which I had never heard of before, but which winemaker Charley Dollbaum claims is widely planted in California. It adds a tropical flavor to what is sometimes a stark wine, yet it's dry and with just enough clean acid to work well with food. It was so smooth and balanced, with such nice fruit, that I liked it much better than I do any NZ Sauv Blancs I've had.

Delicious Sauv Blanc for $10
Next table over, R&B Cellars was pouring their version, a 2007 North Coast Sauvignon Blanc they dub Serenade in Blanc (all their wine names use Jazz music themes), which is 80% tank-fermented to produce what they said was a Sancerre-like flavor. I found it fruity but lean, and liked it. It's only $13, which I like also.

And next to him was JRE (John Robert Eppler) Wines, whose 2009 "Tradition" Sauvignon Blanc with grapes from Napa also included Sauvignon Musque, only 6%, but it did the job of lifting the SB up above the norm, making it tropical-fruit forward and delicious!

My, what a wonderful lineup of whites!

I only had time for a couple of reds by this time-- the Napa Petite Sirah 2009 from Rock Wall had the most wonderful aroma! It was delicious, an A+ drink, but $40, sigh.

Ehrenberg Cellars 
I also retasted the Lodi Petite Sirah from Ehrenberg Cellars, which I had bought a case of six months ago when it was released - rich and delicious, just as I expected. Sorry, forgot to get the list price...

Finally, I stopped by Carica again for their reds and got to taste a very nice 2008 GSM (Rhone-style blend) called The Siren: 70% Kick Ranch Syrah, 15% Grenache, and the rest Mouvedre. At $32 it was *wide* - I don't know how else to put it: It had flavors across my tongue from left to right and front to back. It had beginning, a wonderful middle, and a nice finish. Complex and sophisticated, this is what you go for in a GMS.

I also got in a quick splash of their Kick Ranch Syrah 2007, at $30, very nice indeed.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Blandy's Bicentennial Madeira Tasting - Yum!

I am now completely sold on Madeira.

I had little experience with the fortified wine produced on the mid-Atlantic island until I had a chance last year to attend a trade tasting put on by the The Tasting Panel Magazine and notable wine advisor Anthony Dias Blue for the ancient & honorable house of Broadbent - recounted in my post "I Had No Idea It Could Taste That Good!"

It was an eye-opener on many levels. First, I found that I liked it a lot. Second, it actually does go with food -- many foods. Third, it's the only wine I've found that really does go with chocolate! (The delusion that dry red wine goes well with chocolate is one of those ineradicable urban legends.)
The Invite

So when 'The Tasting Panel' invited me to taste the wines of the equally renowned Madeira house of Blandy's, celebrating its 200th anniversay and hosted by Chairman Michael J. Blandy, I of course jumped at the chance. I hastened to the San Francisco hotel where the full range of Blandy's dozen Madeiras, in various vintages including, envy me!, a 1920 Bual, were being poured in a walkaround tasting.

I explained in detail the amazing origins of Madeira in my earlier post, so I will skip ahead to the tasting notes in this one.

We were treated to a vertical of Malmseys -- This requires a brief side note on the styles of Madeira, each made from a particular type of grape: Sercial, which is dry, good as an aperitif; Verdelho, medium dry and also suitable as an aperitif; Bual, medium-rich and good with cheese and desserts; and Malmsey, a "rich" dessert wine. There are also select versions: Vintage Madeiras are from a particularly fine year, from one grape variety, and casked for 20 years or more. A novel version introduced by Blandy in 2000 is the "Colheita," also a single-vintage cask-aged Madeira but released earlier than 20 years -- and thus more affordable than the vintage.

My reactions: The 5-year Malmsey was good. The 10-year was delicious, with a lovely caramel aroma. Teh 15-year was a "wow!"

We finished with a 1985 Malmsey (that we were told sells for $150 a bottle -- and even a cheapskate like me has to admit it was almost worth it: Absolutely stunning!

We went around the room retasting these and others in the lineup. Here are my brief, simple reactions to very complex wines. In general I prefer sweet, rich, round, and mild.

"Rainwater," a medium-dry Madeira aged in oak for 3 years; "C"
Sercial 5 Years - "C"
Verdelho 5 Years - "B-"
Bual 5 Years - "B"
Alvada 5 Years - This is half Bual and half Malmsy, so it was like the Bual but with more complex, yet priced at under $20 a bottle. "B+"
Malmsey 5 Years - "B+" - very nice, rich, mellow, balanced!
Malmsey 10 Years - Also "B+", rich, with sweet tones.
The Winemaker, whose name I idiotically didn't get.
Old Sercial 15 Years - Only a C; there was a sort of lemon tang to this that I didn't like.
Malmsey 15 Years - "A-" - Rich!
Malmsey-Colheita 1994 - A Malmsey from a single year: "A-" - smooth, wtih a nice tone, even-handed.
Malmsey 1985 - Wow! "A" - 24 years in the barrel, in this case in American oak - You can taste the grape (which oddly you often can't in wine).
Terrantez 1976 - This is a rare grape; I gave it a "B"
Verdelho 1968 - "B-" but it has a sharp edge to it.
Bual 1968 - "B" - fine; also sharp-edged
Sercial 1966 - "B" - OK, a little too dry for me; very pale.
Bual 1920 - History in a bottle, they said; hard to believe you're drinking a 90-year-old wine. It was fine; sorry, I thought it would be more noteworthy, but it only came up to a "B".

Madeiras can be surprisingly affordable considering their exotic nature and the long barrel times on some of these. The younger ones (5, 10, 15 year) can range at retail for under $20 to around $40. The ones from the 1960s get up into the hundreds of dollars a bottle, but then you have to ask yourself how much a Bordeaux from that era would cost you. And you can get Buals from 1948 for not much over $500; or a 1920 Bual for a thousand. In perspective, these are the least expensive high-quality aged wines you're likely to have in your cellar and bring out for guests.

Impressive. I like these far better than any Port or Sherry; I like them quite a bit more than some overpriced but underflavored Bordeaux I've had in my time.