Saturday night was the 24th annual Norton Vertical Tasting at Stone Hill Winery. It's always a fun night, full of people interested in wine and in having a good time.
This is a 10-year vertical tasting beginning with the most recent harvest, so it ran from 2002 through the new vintage of 2011. After considerable discussion and tasting, guests vote on their favorites, using the Chicago system: Vote early and vote often. So, given that people can vote for more than one wine and that this is, to use the technical phrase, a self-selected group, I thought it might be interesting to find out about some of the highest vote-getters.
In fourth place was the brand new vintage of 2011, what Jon Held called "a sort of nouveau Norton", soft and fruit-forward after the very dry summer last year. A small crop, but clearly one to keep an eye on. Usually these newcomers aren't nearly so interesting.
Third went to the 2002 Norton, which tied for first last year. A big guy at the peak of his power, it took a Double Gold at the International Eastern Wine Competition in New York. It cries out for a large slab of prime rib.
The 2003 was the other 2011 first-place winner, and it placed second this year. Smooth, and almost Pinot Noir-ish, this needs some fine veal to go with, or perhaps lamb.
First place this year, the 2005 is nicely complex with notes of spice and a faint aroma of tobacco. Again, I'm thinking beef with this, although there are some mushroom-y pasta dishes (I'm thinking with little or no tomato) that would also work well.
Interestingly, the year of the Easter freeze, 2007 produced very wine, of course, but what Norton there is, is choice. Complex and serious, it was one of my favorites.
The evening starts with bubbly and hors d'oeuvres in the cellar, goes upstairs to the tasting, and ends with dinner in the winery restaurant. And the dinner this year was perhaps the best I can recall. Next year's date has already been set, April 13.
Oh, so you also forgot what's going on tomorrow. . . .
Well, we have to move fast, because it's Valentine's Day, and if we don't have sparkling wine, or Bubbly, or Champagne for the holiday and for our wife-husband-boy friend-girl friend-lover-mistress-whoever, we're in big trouble.
Sparkling wine is a great drink. The bubbles add a touch of fascination as they rise through the glass. Look for small, busy ones as you prepare to drink. Bring your nose close as you inhale the aroma, feel the exploding bubbles tickle your nose. A delightful feeling. There should be fruit, or toastiness, as you sniff. The fruit aromas may vary, since sparkling wine can be made from so many different grapes. Classic French Champagne is usually a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, sometimes just Chardonnay. Champagne labeled "Blanc de Blancs" means it's all from white grapes. Moscato, the current hot grape, will sparkle. So will Sauvignon Blanc, even Catawba.
Dave Johnson, the excellent Stone Hill winemaker, has made superb sparklers from Catawba grapes, something I didn't think possible until I tasted his.
Several of the first-class French Champagne makers, like Taittinger, Moet et Chandon and Roederer, have built wineries in California, using the names Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon and Roederer Estates, respectively, and calling them Sparkling Wine. French law is that Champagne can be made only in the district that bears the name, with Reims and Ay the principal cities.
Blanquette de Limoux, from the area around Limoux, is the oldest of the sparklers, with the wine made several centuries before Dom Perignon "invented" it, as some claim. The 2006 vintage from Sainte Hilaire is a delightful drink, light and crisp and very fruity.
Taittinger's Domaine Carneros label has a splendid 2005 La Reve, and "Nocturne," from France. The label writer for the Nocturne may have sampled a bit too freely, with the wine described as "the refined Champagne for a successful evening," which covers a multitude of situations. Both are tasty drinks. The fact that the Nocturne does not have a vintage date is typical of many French bubblies, whose winemakers blend wines from several vintages to create the final product.
Billecart-Salmon is another producer of fine Sparklers, and its Brut Rose, a lovely pink color, has a hint of its red component in the finish. Delicious.
Sparklers range in price from the low single-digits ($5 of $6 in some stores) to the several hundreds of dollars per bottle. American producers like Schramsberg bring superior sparklers from the Napa Valley and Domaine Roederer, from the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County long has been a personal favorite. Freixenet, from Spain, also has a California presence.
And while French Champagne has a certain cachet, good sparklers come from every country. Australia makes a delicious sparkling Syrah, and while the Italians call it Prosecco, the Spanish call it Cava and the Germans call it Sekt, it's all sparkles, with upwards of 40 million bubbles to a bottle.
From our house to your house, we wish you a relaxing day, a tasty turkey, and a pleasing beverage to accompany it.
Now -- Do you have a date at the wine store tomorrow for something to accompany today's leftovers?
Hold on a minute; we have a few ideas and suggestions that will make things very clear -- or else completely confuse you. Through the years, I've found a number of wines that make comfortable companions to turkey, either at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Of course, I'm also the guy who has said, on more than one occasion, "Give me a fine wine and a fine meal -- and I'll figure out a way to make them go together."
Red wine fans will find that Pinot Noir, or Burgundy if you're into French wines, will go nicely, as will some of the brand-new Beaujolais Nouveau or Beaujolais Villages. Georges DuBoeuf's version of the latter is tasty, with plenty of fruit forward and much flavor from the Gamay grape. The DuBoeuf "regular" Nouveau was close to unpleasant on my palate.
Extremely compatible with food and one of my favorite California sites for inexpensive, food-friendly wines is Bogle, and it offers three at $9 each that are fine values. The '09 Riesling is a bit on the sweet side, but a pleasing accompaniment if you make your leftover turkey into a curry. So are the winery's '10 Sauvignon Blanc and '09 Pinot Noir, the latter an exceptional value. Another good accompaniment is from Napa Cellars, with a fruity, delightful '09 Napa Valley Pinot Noir in the $20 range.
Australia chips in with Frisk, which it calls "prickly Riesling." That translates as a wine with a little spritz, a touch of carbonation, like some good Gewurztraminers. The fruity Riesling's flavors are heightened by the bubbles. The 2011 vintage (that would be a 2010 in terms of our growing season in the Northern hemisphere) is 89 percent Riesling and 11 percent Muscat Gordo, vinified in stainless steel. A hint of sweet makes this an excellent companion to that curry. Good citrus notes in the aroma and on the palate.
Another winning Riesling comes from Pacific Rim, in the Columbia River Valley, made from grapes grown organically and without pesticides. The winery also lets its 150 sheep to roam free in the vineyard as weed-killers. The Washington state winery is located in Richland, and the wine has a bit of sweetness to it, call it medium-dry, but it's extremely fresh and tasty, with grapefruit in the aroma and some pineapple on the palate.
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ZOUNDS AND GADZOOKS, IT'S A ZORK: The search for tight, inexpensive, easy-to-open substitutes for cork continues. Don Sebastiani and Sons, operating out of Sonoma, has an interesting new closure, called a Zork, on wines dubbed Project Paso because they include Paso Robles grapes. Priced at under $15, the new wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and a Red Blend that is made from eight different groups.
The Zork is an artificial cork with a flanged top that is easy to grip and to remove from the bottle. Keeping the wine free from air is a plastic cover that resembles the sealing wax once used to seal letters. It peels off easily and the cork can be reused to keep the wine sufficiently fresh for several days.
The wines are tasty, especially the red blend. It's primarily Grenache (37 percent), but also includes Zinfandel (16), Petite Sirah (14), Mourvedre (11), Barbera (9), Lagrein (8), Tempranillo (3) and Sangiovese (2). Lagrein is a relative of the Petite Sirah first grown in the Italian Tyrol, and also planted in small amounts and used for blending in the U.S. and Australia.
The Sebastianis also have an even less-expensive collection of wines under the Smoking Loon label, ranging from $8-$10. In the same price range, I think the Bogle wines are tastier and show more fruit, but Smoking Loon is passable.
It's November 17. Do you know what it means?
A clue: It's the third Thursday in November. What makes it so important?
No, it isn't my birthday. Send presents at another time.
It's the day for Beaujolais Nouveau, the third Thursday in November, when the 2011 wine is released to people who have been holding their breath for 11 months, or since the day they finished their 2010 stock.
The release of the Nouveaus used to be a big day for p.r. types who conjured up wacky races and midnight bar openings to publicize the arrival of the new wine, most of which had been around several weeks, though not in a position to be sold. It was innocent fun.
The wine comes from the Beaujolais region, which overlaps a little of Burgundy to the north and a little of the Rhone region to the south. Gamay is the prime grape, and the popular Nouveaus of Georges Duboeuf are made of 100 percent Gamay. The grape, rather low in alcohol, tends to be high in acid, and therefore must be picked early, vinified early, bottled early and drunk early. The 2011 harvest began on Aug. 22 and ended Sept. 15, which means that we've traveled from harvest to tasting glass in less than three months.
Duboeuf makes a Beaujolais Nouveau and a Beaujolais Village Nouveau, the latter considered to be of slightly higher quality. The retail price is about $10, and be sure not to buy too much because the wine will be over the hill by the end of the year. This year. 2011.
I tasted both of the wines last night (shortly before midnight) and enjoyed then. To my taste, they were better than a year ago. The "standard" was a dark maroon in color, and the aroma of fresh grapes practically exploded from the bottle. The flavor had the same emphasis on grapiness, and was very flavorful. The Villages, tending to crimson rather than purple, showed more depth, more complexity, more mystery. The aroma had a hint of blackberry and the palate showed a little more restraint, but more richness. Very tasty, with a longer finish, a wine that showed much promise, even though we know it cannot fulfill it. Again, a wine to be drunk soon.
Talking to Franck Duboeuf, son of Georges, a few weeks ago, brought the standard, optimistic comment of a Beaujolais Nouveau producer.
"This is going to be one of the best years we've ever had," he said cheerfully. "The weather was right, the growing conditions perfect."
The wine is tasty and pleasant to drink. Either will be very good with the Thanksgiving turkey; my preference would be to quaff the "standard" before the meal, to sip the Villages during it.
I've been a fan of wines from France's Rhone Valley for a long time; at least since before the phrase "Rhone Ranger," came onto the scene. My first memory of it is in a wine story by an English writer, and I was delighted at the linguistics involved, and that I had met a movement with which I could identify.
Since then, I've had the opportunity to follow the Rhone River in both directions and to experience its blessings. I remember sitting on the rocky area that shares space with the remains of the Chateauneuf-de-Pape castle. Pope Clement V moved from Rome to Avignon in 1308; his successor, Pope John XXII, built the castle. Only a couple of walls remain, but the space was just right for a picnic lunch and a bottle from a nearby winery.
Avignon is at the southern end of the Rhone, not far from Marseilles, where the river empties into the Mediterranean Sea. The northern end is around Lyons, where the Saone joins the Rhone. Hermitage, Cote Rotie and St. Joseph are among the finest from the Northern Rhone, all at the tasting, while Gigondas, a personal favorite, is from the Southern Rhone. The Cotes-du-Rhone label covers the entire Rhone Valley.
Anyway, I recently reveled in some glorious Rhones from E. Guigal, based in the northern Rhone's Condrieu area and serving as both a winemaker and a negociant, or exporter/distributor. The Wine Merchant played host to the tasting, and more than a dozen beautiful wines were on display. Most were reds, primarily blends of Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and Carignane, but often with lesser-known grapes from the area.
The Guigal Gigondas, from 2007, was a great bargain at $29.99, and more time in the bottle will see it improve. Then wine is rich and plummy, with an elegant finish.
Older wines showed more style, with Cote Rotie from the Chateau d'Ampuis a taste of summer in vintages from 2000, 2002 and 2004. All simply rolled around the tongue, leaving a trail of beauty. Cote Rotie "Brune et Blonde" from 2004 and 2007 was a step or so behind, with the '04 showing a little fade of color. A 2007 Ermitage (a variation on the spelling of Hermitage) left me smiling at the thought of how much it will improve over the next decade.
Hermitage Blanc from 2000 and 2005 were a fascinating contrast as the older wine, as fine whites will, showed depth and richness, and an indication of how the youngster will grow and mature.
Great pleasure in all respects. . . .
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OTHER RECENT TASTINGS were led by a recently released '09 Cabernet Sauvignon from Sequoia Grove, a lovely Napa Valley winery that sits behind a couple of glorious trees just off Highway 29 in Rutherford. The wine is of very deep color, with an aroma of sweet cherries, their color a red so dark they're almost black. It's rich, with superb balance, and another 12 months of age will polish it. The flavor displays more cherries, soft tannins and a long finish (about $40).
PRIMUS: A pair of lovely Chilean reds from the Colchagua Valley, a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2008 proprietary blend labeled The Blend. Both are fine values at about $20; the Cab adds 8 per cent Syrah for a little more body. The Blend includes Cab (44 percent), Syrah (21), Carmenere (19) and Merlot (18), and is a lush wine with big body, good berry flavor and hints of spice. A hint of blueberries in an aroma that also shows some spice.
JUSLYN VINEYARDS: A Napa producer from the Spring Mountain District has recent releases of a pair of superior 2007 red wines. The 100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon ($90) has spent three years in French oak, 18 months in bottle. It shows a little purple to augment a deep ruby color, and an aroma of cedar and cassis. The palate feels elegance, rich smoothness and layers of flavor, plus the knowledge that the wine will grow for two decades. The blend (about $60) is Cabernet Sauvignon (42), Merlot (33), Cabernet Franc (20) and Petit Verdot (5), and it was aged similarly to its all-Cab cousin. Dark berries in the aroma, a hint of plum in the rich, bold flavor, a long and classy finish.
Wine dinners always have a festive air, but there was an extra element at Lo Russo's recently when the wines of Bolen Family Estates were on the table. The evenng marked the release of Eric Bolen's excellent 2007 Merlot, and it also provided an opportunity to sit in on what felt like a reunion of men whose friendship went back many years and who relished the chance to get together.
Eric grew up in St. Louis (Chaminade and St. Louis U., for those who think this is essential information), Having worked in St. Louis restaurants and bars during his college days, he developed an interest in wine, and in later years, when he visited California wineries and drank wine with his father, interest grew into love. And in 1997, when a chunk of Napa County land became available, he purchased it, with Dad as one of his partners.
The goal was to make great Merlot, and he's moving in the right direction.
Understanding that grapes and a winemaker are the vital components of making good wine, he began sourcing Merlot grapes from the famed Beckstoffer vineyards and hired Tom Rinaldi as the winemaker. Rinaldi spent many years making the great Duckhorn wines. And despite his relative youth, Eric knew what kind of Merlot he wanted to make.
"I like Merlots that are big and full-bodied," he said, decanting a newly opened bottle to breathe for a little while. "I like the taste of dark fruit, of blackberries and blueberries and plums, and I believe that the less you mess with the wine, the better it will be."
He picks grapes at 28 brix (a measurement of sugar in the grape), and often late in the harvest period; the 2011 vintage will be picked near the end of October. The wine then spends 28 months in French oak barrels, a fifth of which are of new wood, and some time in bottle before the release. Again, he's later than many wineries, with the '07, which was harvested in November of that year, just coming into stores and wine shops nationally.
He explained, after sniffing the wine, taking a sip and smiling broadly at the result. "This wine is ready to drink now," he said, "though it will improve for quite a few years. But the time in the oak, and then in the bottle, allows the rough edges to be smoothed off, the tannins absorbed, the wine softened. Too many wines, in my opinion, are released too early."
In truth, most wine bought at retail is destined to accompany dinner the same night, and it's disappointing to open a bottle and find the wine too heavy with tannin that overpowers the grapes.
He's looking forward to the upcoming vintage, because a hot (92-95) spell in late August helped build the sugar in the grapes to the right level. I found his '07 to be elegant, with the dark fruit flavors prominent. Like most Merlots, it's on the soft side, but it's smooth and round and a fine dinner companion. It's expensive, too, with a retail price about $60. That's high, and it probably won't sell much at Humphrey's, the St. Louis U.-area bar where Eric worked and learned, but in a show of loyalty to a former employee, it's on the list.
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RECENT TASTINGS: Joseph Phelps 2010 Eisrebe, smooth, slightly sweet, pineapple, honey, honeysuckle. delicious, Scheurebe grapes, picked at 22 brix, then frozen to -5 degrees Farenheit. When the grapes are thawed, the brix has risen to 36, and when the wine is released, the brix has dropped to 22.5. The Duckhorn folks think that doing it this way, rather than waiting to give freezing weather a chance, allows for better control of temperatures, and it's hard to argue when tasting this wine. About $50.
2009 Zonte's Footstep 2009 Lady of the Lake Viognier ($15), very tasty, with good apricot flavors and an unexpected hint of ginger. Smooth finish, excellent aperitif.
Dry Creek 2010 Sonoma County Fume Blanc, dry and citrusy, is made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Making it in stainless steel provides for a crisper flavor,with gapefruit the leading flavor. A terrific food wine, and a good buy at $15 retail.
Big House 2009 Cardinal Zin, 2009, rich with dark fruit flavors, good balance. A blend of Zinfandel (80 percent), Mourvedre (10), Carignane (8) and Petit Sirah (2), it's a little on the soft side, with a long, smooth finish.
Civilization has returned to the corner of Clayton Road and Clayton Avenue. The Fox and Hounds bar in the Cheshire has reopened, looking amazingly like it did in the 1950s and 60s, when the late Mark Pollman held forth behind the bar. His book, "Bottled Wisdom," is for sale, and a small plaque pays tribute. We visited the other night, and as we sat at the bar, a young couple strolled in, looked around; the man's first response was, "Amazing."
We represent both extremes of guests here; Joe was practically a regular a long time ago, and Ann may have been here once many, many years ago. But the decor of an upper-crust English pub with comfortable chairs, cozy lighting and animal heads is irresistible. A piano player and a stand-up bass, providing a soundtrack of romantic mid-century jazz standards, clinched the deal.
Yes, there's food, too; wings are crisp under a light brushing of a sweet-hot glaze; the black pepper mayonnaise was superfluous. And we loved the lamb sliders, one of the few times we've found brioche buns to actually work with a burger. The one with the small scoop of cheddar spread was the top of the heap for us. Fish and chips did pretty well, although the second piece was too greasy. Nice light batter, though. Food until 10 during the week, 11 on the weekends.
We can't imagine how many seductions this place has hosted, but we think it's going to be the scene of many more, either in the warm and friendly bar, or on the dimly lighted patio around the pool.
The Fox and Hounds
The Cheshire Inn
6300 Clayton Rd.
Lunch and Dinner nightly
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
"Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be," sang Doris Day in "The Man Who Knew Too Much." That was in 1956, when hardly anyone knew about "sera," or "Syrah," pronounced similarly but approached differently. The former is a form of the Spanish verb, "to be," and adding "que," makes it work as the line says.
Syrah, on the other hand, is a dark red grape from France's Rhone Valley, and what it will be, in proper hands, is a dark, full-bodied, hearty red wine. Yes, it's a stretch, but those who remember the Alfred Hitchcock movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Day may get a smile out of it. The song did win an Academy Award.
Syrah, known as Shiraz in Australia and parts of South America, is not related, however, to Petite Sirah, also known as Dourif. I know there are many different names for the same grape, but in the days before instantaneous communication, nomenclature was handled differently.
Anyway, I'm a fan of Syrah, as I am of most rich and hearty reds, and I came across some interesting samples recently, one from Randall Grahm, who owns Bonny Doon. He's an old friend who is one of the great wine-makers and wine-namers. He's the guy that named a Rhone-style red "Le Cigare Volant," which roughly translates into "space ship," after a small town in the Hermitage passed a law so bizarre I thought it came from the Missouri Legislature or the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. It forbade space ships from way out there somewhere from landing in the particular commune.
And it's worked. No space ships have landed there.
Now he's added a rose, or Vin Gris de Cigare, and it's a delight and a bargain at $15. It's a blend of Grenache Rouge (71 percent), Roussanne (16), Grenache Blanc (11) and Mourvedre (2), and it's crisp, light and dry, with hints of strawberry and cherry. It's a perfect aperitif or an accompaniment to a light, not-too-spicy lunch. It makes Ann and me think we're in Provence, sitting on the patio of a seaside restaurant.
And now back to Syrah. Grahm's new one, a 2008, is 100 percent Syrah from the Central Coast of California. Big and rich, with hints of leather in the aroma and dark berries on the palate, it's a splendid wine that has delightful flavors and a long finish that brings them all together.
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SYRAH, SYRAH, OR MORE SYRAH: Zaca Mesa, in Los Olivos, also makes Syrah from Central Coast grapes, and a pair of delicious 2007s are in the market now. Both are from vineyards in Santa Barbara County; the "ordinary" Syrah is at $25, the Mesa Reserve at $42.
To my mind (and palate), the reserve is worth the extra money. It's a truly elegant wine, smooth as silk. There are cassis flavor overtones and big, sweet blackberries, he kind that exlode with flavor in the mouth. It's a special wine, still showing some tannin, and it should improve for another dozen years.
The less expensive version is not much lesser in the glass or on the mouth. It spent a little less time in the barrel, and there are a few rough edges here and there. Pouring it about 40 minutes before dinner smooths many of them. There's still plenty of fruit and a feel of solidity. Try it with a steak.
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ZOUNDS! IT'S A ZORK! The Sebastiani family has been in the California wine industry for generations, with lots of Sonoma Valley production. Through various changes, marriages, births, sales, purchases, reorganizations and other situations common to winemaking families, Don Sebastiani, son of August and grandson of founder Samuele, now has Don Sebastiani and Sons, and a project in Paso Robles, called Project Paso.
And, of course, one of the Merry Pranksters who make me so happy to be writing about wine, already has a slogan, Consider the Paso-billities.
And furthermore, instead of using an ordinary cork, or a crown cap, or a screw cap, the Sebastianis are using a Zork. It's an Australian development to seal bottles, and I think it's terrific. It's a plastic cover and seal that peels easily off the bottle to show a plastic cork that has a handle (more like a head) to pull the cork, or zork, or whatever it is. It comes out of the bottle with no trouble, can provide more flair for a sommelier than a screw cap, and since it fits a standard bottle, it can be used to close another bottle of wine, or vinegar, or whatever else you may have hanging around the house. It's not a perfect seal, but it's a lot better than trying to put a cork back into a bottle or to use a screw cap on an ordinary bottle.
I sampled the reds, all of which need to be opened at least an hour before drinking. Otherwise they are simply too tannic, almost bitter. The Red Blend, which includes eight different wines, finally calms down, and shows some interesting flavor combinations as grapes not tasted too often show their style. The blend is Grenache (17 percent), Zinfandel (16), Petite Sirah (14), Mourvedre (11), Barbera (9), Lagrein (8), Tempranillo (3) and Sangiovese (2). Barbera and Sangiovese are primarily Italian grapes, and Tempranillo is the heart of many Spanish reds. Lagrein, new to me, also is an Italian grape, similar to a Petite Sirah. The Zinfandel adds only 7 percent Lagrein and after lots of air it showed some good savory notes and plenty of the familiar Zinfandel flavor. The Cab, which didn't offer much at all, starts with 89 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, adds Petite Sirah (5), Alicante Bouchet, Grenache and Merlot (2 each).
The Zin and the Red Blend would be satisfactory with pizza or a simple pasta preparation.
There are countless Chardonnays out there, with every style, every flavor, every finish making claims to greatness. I'm not a huge fan of California's offerings, though some can be very good. A few visits to the Burgundy area of France left wondrous memories of crisp, dry, citrus-y wines, but too many American wine-shop shelves and restaurant wine lists are laden with big, oaky, buttery, overdone California wines.
Since I'm willing to admit that the problem may be mine, and not the wine's, I keep tasting.
And every now and then I find a Chardonnay (actually two) that I consider pleasant and enjoyable.
There's a lot of distance between California and Australia, and just as much difference between 2009 Chardonnays from Sequoia Grove, in the heart of Napa County, and from Plantagenet Wines, whose Omrah Chardonnay comes from the Great Southern region of Western Australia.
Sequoia Grove's version (about $18) is extremely rich, but with great balance, and the basic Chardonnay flavors are clear and crisp. The wine, from Carneros grapes, was barrel-fermented with light oak, but did not go through malolactic fermentation, which I applaud. It's a delicious wine, either as an aperitif or with oysters on the shell. The Plantagenet version (about $15) never saw any oak, was fermented in stainless steel, then left on the lees for a goodly period of time before bottling. The result is an extra-crisp, flinty wine, with considerable citrus flavor and a stony undertone. It's very much in the Burgundian style.
And despite their difference, I liked both of them very much.
Plantagenet also makes Hazard Hill, a Sauvignon Blanc (68 percent), Semillon (32) blend, with a hint of Riesling. I'm very fond of Sauvignon Blanc, but I have difficulty with Semillon, especially when blended as it is here. My palate reacts badly to the combination, feeling that the Semillon makes the Sauvignon Blanc flabby and weak. Not for me, even at $13.
On the other hand, rose wines are for me, and as we come into summer, they're especially good at lunch, or an aperitif before dinner. Innocent Bystander, from Victoria, Australia, is a delight. Oddly, it comes with a crown cap, like bottled soda used to. The winemaker reports the cap keeps its slight fizz in fine shape. Made from Black Muscat and Muscat Gordo, it's light (5.5 percent alcohol)m, its bright and lovely, though the price ($35) is rather high.
Lots of other recent tastings, too. . . .
KITCHEN SINK: Owned by Adler Fels, this Santa Rosa operation offers a non-vintage red and white, both composed of many grapes, and a bargain price of $10. Some would say this is blending at its finest; others would claim that the winemaker merely put together a large amount of inexpensive grapes. The red, with Zinfandel (38 percent), Merlot (34), Cabernet Sauvignon (21), Petite Sirah (5) and mixed red varieties (2), tastes of Zin, and is dry and fruity, probably fine for a picnic. The white, made from Chardonnay (36), Chenin Blanc (32), Gewurztraminer (21) and mixed white varieties (11), is less satisfactory. There's a pleasant aroma, but not much flavor.
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FOUR-MILE CREEK: The Novy Family displays a 2008 red wine from the north coast. There's a pleasant Rhone-style richness, and the flavor indicates a good portion of Syrah, whose presence makes this a fine companion to pasta or pizza, especially in its 10-dollar price range.
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ALENTE VINHO BRANCO: The Alentejo region of southern Portugal produces some lovely, crisp white wines in the $10 range. An '09 white, blended from antao vaz and arinto grapes, has a charming crispness and an overlay of sweetness to make this an excellent dessert wine or as an aperitif. Lots of very good fruit.
* * * *
VERAMONTE SAUVIGNON BLANC: A splendid wine from an Argentine standby, the '09 Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc is a delight. Good mineral undertones and a crisp, long finish add extra layers to a rich, full-bodied wine that makes a fine companion to grilled chicken. The $12 price tag is just one more note of value.
Morgan Spurlock sent shivers of envy into millions of people--and shivers of disgust into millions more--when he spent a month eating only McDonald's fare for "Super Size Me." Now, in "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," he proves himself absolutely shameless, but quite funny and imaginative as he tries to finance a 90-minute commercial for a variety of products.
He got a million bucks, and probably all the pomegranate juice he could drink, in a deal with Pom Wonderful. They drink's name is above the title; even the New York Times lists Spurlock's triumph as "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." Since he said he needed $1.5 million to make the film, Pom's efforts made it possible.
If you don't like the movie, however, you can find another pomegranate juice.
The film is clever, rather funny and definitely a one-trick pony. Spurlock, as the saying used to go, could sell refrigerators to Eskimos, and watching his sales pitches to a variety of manufacturers, including Mane 'n Tail, a shampoo created for both horse and rider, is creative, outrageous and highly enjoyable. The movie's high spot has Spurlock and a pony sharing a tub.
But when he goes into Florida and tries to sell advertising on school buses and in schools, the charm is over and the idea of trying to make a joke out of the disaster area that is the nation's public schools becomes rather repulsive.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold opens today.
Interested in Missouri wine? Would you like to taste some? The Doubletree Hotel at West Port Plaza should be your destination today.
The 2011 Drink Local Wine Conference offers three seminars (tickets include lunch) this morning; a taste-off this afternoon with some two dozen Missouri wineries pouring samples and tasters voting on their favorites, followed by a reception. Tomorrow's fun involves a bus tour to three Missouri wineries along Highway 94 (lunch included). Tickets are $35 for each of today's events, and $30 for the bus ride, with discounts for attending multiple events.
Ann and Joe will be hosts for the bus ride, dispensing stories and wisdom. Joe has been writing about Missouri wine since 1973, and guarantees it's better now than it was then.
Panels include remarks from winemakers, sellers, buyers and drinkers, and there will be an opportunity to ask questions of various experts.
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TALK ABOUT A NEW START: In my early days as a wine writer, I met Hogue Cellars during a trip to Washington and the Columbia River Valley. I visited the Seattle area, where big guys like Chateau Ste. Michelle were producing good wine, and I drove east along the river to Prosser, located in the Horse Heaven Hills. Mike Hogue and his brother, Gary, had grown up as hops farmers, then turned to grapes and made delightful wines in bottles whose labels were a gorgeous shade of blue. The family also made delicious pickled beans and other treats from vegetables they grew.
As the 20th century turned into the 21st, the winery was bought and Mike Hogue went back to growing grapes. Five years later, he entered a partnership with the Mercer family and went back to winemaking as Mercer Estates. Mike's daughter and son-in-law, Barbara and Ron Harle, also are involved. David Forsyth, lean, tanned and bearded, moved from Hogue to Mercer as winemaker, and was in a St. Louis wine shop last week to taste and talk about wine, two of the things that keep me happy as a wine writer.
The Mercer wines come from grapes grown in the Yakima Valley and the Horse Heaven Hills. Forsyth, grinning at the fact that he was tasting his wines on a St. Louis street that bears his name, is a winemaker who believes that it all begins in the vineyard.
"The grapes tell you," he said. "They tell you when they're ready to pick, and when to stop the fermentation process, and even when to bottle the wine. You just have to listen to them."
Forsyth's top reds, at about $23 a bottle, are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from 2007. The Cab is rich but slightly hard, still showing tannin from 18 months in French and American oak barrels. It also is blended with 10 percent Cabernet Franc and 7 percent Merlot, compiling a nice complexity in a long, consistent finish. The Merlot benefited from a cool summer and later picking. Like so many merlots, it has a delightful berry aroma, and a hint of chocolate on the tongue.
I was especially impressed with a semi-dry 2009 Riesling, with good citrusT in the nose and a hint of sweetness that would make it a brilliant companion to spicy Asian food, like Indian or Thai curries. Interestingly, a scale on the back label shows just how much sugar remains in a wine Forsyth calls "semi-dry." It's a good idea. An '09 Chardonnay was crisp and pleasant, and a Sauvignon Blanc from the same vintage was delightful, its crisp mineral qualities perfectly balanced by a touch of grapefruit.
Mercer Estates wines are available at many St. Louis wine shops.
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Napa Cellars 2009 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($18): Well-balanced, nicely poised with a proper alcohol-acid balance. Smooth drinking with nice acidity. Excellent with grilled swordfish or halibut.
Zaca Mesa 2009 Santa Ynez Valley Viognier ($20): A delightful example of a Rhone Valley white that may be even better in California than it was in France. Bright and flowery, with peach notes, a superb companion to Thai cooking, with fruit and spice balancing perfectly.
Clos Pegase 2008 Napa Valley Pinot Noir ($35): Grapes from the Carneros region show the blackberry notes that make this an exceptional wine.
Bogle 2008 California Petite Sirah ($11): The Bogle label always means fine value at low cost. This is another, a year in oak, the wine with a firm edge that dissipates in the glass, excellent plum flavor.
Concannon Conservancy 2007 Livermore Valley Petite Sirah ($15): Dark ruby in color, with an aroma that hints at tobacco and chocolate, this is a delicious wine at a good price.Look for blackberries in a wine that is a fine companion to a grilled steak.
We know that our readers know a lot about everything, but we sometimes wonder just how knowledgeable they are about the wines of our state. More than a century ago, Missouri grapes helped save the world's wine industry; about a century ago, Missouri was one of the world leaders in wine production. Today, Missouri is home to nearly 100 wineries.
All this will be celebrated April 2-3 (this is not an April Fool's Day joke) at the Doubletree Westport and at some Missouri wineries. It's the third in a series of Drink Local Wine events; we met in Dallas in 2009 and in Virginia last year, under the leadership of co-founders Dave McIntyre, who writes about wine for the Washington Post, and Jeff Siegel, who runs the Wine Curmudgeon blog from his Dallas home. I was at the first one and had a fine time, and learned a lot about Texas wine.
Both Ann and I will be involved; we're on different panels on Saturday morning and will be the hosts of a bus tour on Sunday afternoon. There are other panels and other bus tours, as well.
The event also includes a Twitter Tasting on Saturday afternoon where a large group of Missouri wineries will be pouring samples and tasters are invited to share their opinions and thoughts on Twitter.
Interested wine-drinkers can get more information and can sign up for the event at www.drinklocalwine.com
Join us. It's sure to be fun, and your next chance won't happen until 2063.
Opening a bottle of wine is a lot like scratching off the scratch-off stuff on a lottery ticket. It carries a feeling of suspense, of the hope that great things are about to happen. They are not always realized, of course, and while millionaire status may never arrive, a good bottle of wine provides pleasure.
And speaking of pleasure, I recently had a delightful experience with two bottles of Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon. As a wine writer, I occasionally open two, or even three, bottles with a meal, so as to compare and contrast different vintages, the same vintage from different California counties and things like that.
The Phelps people make outstanding wine. Their best usually carries the Insignia label, and I have a bottle waiting patiently to be tasted next month. But I opened a pair of the Phelps Napa Cabernet Sauvignon recently, one from 2006, one from 2007, and I was struck by what a difference a year makes. Each wine retails for about $50. The '07 showed good plummy aroma and pleasant berry overtones on the palate. But it was hard, with tannin that interfered with the rich Cab flavors, and a relatively short finish. On the other hand, the '06 had used that extra year to great results. The aroma was a little bigger, but the flavor truly showed the benefit of age. The wine was big, filling the mouth with berry and cassis notes, and its richness hung around in a lovely, long finish. A sheer delight. A wonderful companion to rare roast beef, and don't open the '07 for a year or so.
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ANOTHER FINE TASTING: Zaca Mesa, the Santa Barbara County winemaker, is big on Rhone varieties, and a pair from the Santa Ynez Valley are superior representatives of the 2007 vintage. The Z cuvee ($20) is a blend of Grenache (52 percent), Mourvedre (31) and Syrah (12), a classic Rhone blend; the Syrah ($25) a powerful example of what a single grape beings to the bottle. The spring and early summer were cool, and harvest began about four weeks later than usual.
Both are still rather young, so tannins are strong, especially in the latter. The aroma sings of various types of berries and a little tobacco, the palate is rich with blackberries, the finish lengthy. The blend covers some of the tannin, and its dark color comes from the Mourvedre, which also adds a note of pepper on the tongue. The Grenache acts to lighten the body, as compared to the heavier Syrah, and it brings red raspberry to the flavor palate, and I preferred it to the Syrah. These wines are perfect with a rack of lamb, but they do well with a range of foods.
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AND NAPA MAKES THREE: Napa Cellars makes a Reserve Chardonnay ($35) from grapes grown in the Mt. Veeder APA, one of the smallest appellations at only five square miles. The wine, however, is a delight. Crisp and elegant, it leaves a hint of sparkle on the tongue and provides a finish unusually long for the wine. The "ordinary" Chardonnay, from other Napa Valley vineyards, is tasty and easy on the palate, just with a slightly shorter finish. Both pleasant as aperitifs, or with broiled chicken or scallops.
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HERE'S TO BEER: I like beer, but I drank so much of it in my college days and my softball days that I simply had to put this vice behind me for a while. But the growth of craft beers and different styles brought me back into the arena. For a period of my life, I spent summers in the Chicago area, and I struck up a friendship with Goose Island beers, partly because the brewery also housed a theater, so I could deal with several interests in one visit.
But the HandleBar, a bicycle-oriented bar in the Grove at 4127 Manchester Ave., did a beer-and-food dinner recently and the fact that it involved Goose Island beers piqued my curiosity. Jonathan Jones and Anna Sidel, who describe themselves as "kitchen gurus," prepared three pizzas and other courses to accompany seven different Goose Island products, and everything worked nicely.
I like the light feeling of hefeveisen, or wheat beer, so the Urban wheat ale got things off to a good start. We went on to IPA white cheddar soup with Honker's Ale, a bitter that I thought was a little too strong for the soup, but all the other pairings went smoothly. Spinach salad with walnuts and roasted beets was joined by Maltilda, a Belgian-style pale ale, a nice complement.
Three pizzas--roasted winter vegetables and fontina; shrimp, ricotta, feta and tomato sauce; andpancetta, goat cheese and caramelized onions--were accompanied by, respectively, English-style Mild Winter Ale brewed with rye; Sofie, a Belgian-style farmhouse ale; and Pepe Nero, a farmhouse ale brewed with black peppercorns. Tasty, well-balanced pizza, smooth, tasty ales.
Dessert involved some delicious, home-made, winter-spiced thin cookies, crisp and small with a hint of ginger and molasses. Pere Jacques, a dark Belgian-style dubbel, balanced it perfectly.
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CURTAIN CALL AT THE CHASE: The annual winter wine-tasting extravaganza to benefit the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis certainly drew a lot of people to the Chase-Park Plaza the last weekend of January. Crowds like those make it difficult to do much serious tasting. There is so much wine, and so many people to chat with, and so much conversation that it's difficult to concentrate. And after a while, of course, the palate gets so over-stimulated that fatigue sets in and judgment steps away.
My longest visit was with the wines of Nicholson Jones, made by Julien Fayard, who also makes wine for his own label, Azur. Fayard is from Provence, the French region that borders on the Mediterranean, probably my favorite place on Earth. He showed two 2009 Azur wines, a Rose and a Sauvignon Blanc. The Rose brought memories of lunches in Riviera cafes, looking out to sea. Fayard did not list the grapes, but it tasted like Grenache, light and fruity, with some other Provencal grapes, like Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre or Syrah, added to the blend. The 100 percent Sauvignon had crisp, citrus flavors.
The Nicholson Jones label, simple and rather austere, covers some rich, elegant red wines, priced under $30 a bottle with an exception for the 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from the Clare Luce Abbey Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Priced at about $37, it's a big, rich Cab with all the hearty flavor one expects.
Fayard also makes Provencal blends in the Cellar Arts series, like the '06 Napa Cuvee, which includes Petit Verdot (27 percent), Cabernet Sauvignon (25), Syrah (25) and Merlot (23). The '07, due for release next month, starts with Syrah (25), then involves Cabernet Sauvignon (22), Cabernet Franc (19), Petit Verdot (18) and Merlot (16). It's a little bolder, with strong blackberry overtones. He also has a delicious Rutherford Reserve, a 52-48 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
And as I wandered and tasted, I was much impressed with the Taittinger Champagne, the Cain Five red blend, the Pinot Noir from Freestone, Ridge's offerings of its Montebello and Lytton Springs wines and a Cask Cabernet from Rubicon.
It was a worthy event, staged nicely for a delightful afternoon.
The opportunity to open a good Zinfandel always lowers the odds for a delightful dining experience. Opening four of them is almost as much fun as winning a lottery. And when the wines come from Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley, under the label of Dry Creek Vineyards, they can be opened with confidence.
A recent tasting allowed, as my college professors used to say, the opportunity to "compare and contrast" a 2008 Zin and three from 2007. Being a year younger than the others hurts the '08 Heritage Sonoma County Zinfandel (about $19) when tasted against the others, though its price, $10-$15 less than the '07s, gives it some appeal. Tasty, yes. Smooth and charming, yes. But it lacks the finish, the power, the complexity that the others possess. Perhaps a year or so more age will help; it's a blend of 82 percent Zin and 18 percent Petite Sirah, and it spent 10 months in French and American oak. The wine, with aromas of cherry and flavor notes of blueberry, is a tasty companion to meat-sauced pasta dishes.
The other three, all with a Dry Creek Valley appellation, are Beeson Ranch, from 100-year-old vines, 97 percent Zin, 3 percent Petite Sirah ($34); Somers Ranch, 100 percent Zinfandel ($34) and Old Vine Zinfandel, from vines averaging 85 years of age, 82 percent Zin and 18 percent Petite Sirah ($28).
My favorite was the wine from Somers Ranch, with Beeson Ranch a close second. Both are outstanding wines, and it will come down to personal flavor preference. The 2007 crop was one of the best ever, say the folks at Dry Creek, who have been making first-rate wine since David Stare founded it in 1972. They talk about perfect weather and fine growing conditions for the entire season.
This means it's up to Bill Knuttel, the executive winemaker, not to screw things up . And he didn't.
Both wines will benefit from being decanted and left to sit on the dining table 45-60 minutes after opening. Somers, 100 percent Zin, has an impressive blackberry aroma with hints of clove, and smooth, light tannin notes on the palate, providing structure and backbone for the black cherry and coffee notes. A terrific wine with a long finish. The Beeson grapes, from 100-year-old vines that yield less than one ton an acre, has pepper elements in the nose, black cherry and chocolate on the palate, a little tannin. Three percent Petite Sirah is added to the blend. The Beeson Ranch had a slightly (20-16 days) longer fermentation time, but both were aged for 17 months, the Beeson in French oak, 40 percent new, the Somers in a mixture of French, American and Hungarian wood, 50 percent new.
Both are delicious, bringing style to any table. A year or so more bottle age, if you have the patience, probably would improve them.
The Old Vine Zin, also tasty, is a little lighter than the single-ranch versions. All four, however, are winners, with the deep flavor that is a given with quality Zinfandel.
A delicious 2006 Merlot, with small amounts of Cabernet Franc (8 percent), Malbec (4) and Cabernet Sauvignon (1) to round out the blend, is a fine companion to a hearty roast.
White wine fans will be pleased with the Dry Creek Valley 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, a crisp, nicely acidic wine with melon and peach overtones. The winery's '09 Fume Blanc also is a charmer, with a gravelly, mineral quality that makes one think of Sancerre from France's Loire Valley.
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RECENT TASTINGS: Wines from many countries, many vineyards, many styles have brightened my palate through the winter. These are my opinions, though I realize full well that many things can affect a wine-drinker's judgment. There are days when the palate is more sensitive, days when an external event or mood can make a wine taste better, or not as good. Here goes, divided by wines. . . .
MERLOT: Folie a Deux has an excellent '08 from Napa ($18), with 14 percent Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. Excellent balance, deep plum notes. . . Clos du Bois' offering, from the North Coast ($15), offers 91 percent Merlot, with touches of Cab, Malbec and Syrah and overtones of dark cherries leading to a long, happy finish. . . . Bogle' 2008 vintage is a good value at $8.
SYRAH: J. Lohr's '07 from Paso Robles ($15) uses both French and American clones to emphasize blackberry traits, superior balance. . . Napa Cellars has released a splendid, rich '07 Syrah ($28) with light tannin and big flavor.
CHARDONNAY: Folie a Deux scores again with an '09 from Napa ($18) that is crisper and cleaner than many California rivals, with a lovely note of green apple along the way. . . Cupcake Vineyards, with Central Coast grapes ($14) but a flat affect and a too-short finish. . .
SAUVIGNON BLANC: Cupcake Vineyards' import from New Zealand ($14) is a delightful, crisp, very lemony and with a touch of pineapple in the finish; an excellent offering from the Marlborough area of the South Island. . .
PINOT NOIR: Bogle, always an excellent value, shows an $11 wine that uses Pinot Noir grapes from the Russian River Valley, Monterey and Santa Barbara to create a first-rate wine with fine body and a surprisingly long finish. . . J Vineyards' 2007 Russian River Valley ($29) wine is outstanding, with all the lean, well-muscled flavor of the classic Burgundy.
You can't judge a book by its cover, and you certainly can't judge a wine by its label. With a book, however, you can slide it out of its space on the shelf of the shop, open it and read a few paragraphs--or even a few pages--to get a slight indication of its worth. A similar effort in a wine shop is not a good idea.
Packaging in both fields has made great strides over the last few generations, and a look across a wine shelf shows delightful imagination, sparkling imagery, superb use of color and fine coordination of typography and graphic art. I remember when Baron Philippe Rothschild inaugurated a series of labels designed by artists like Marc Chagall and Palo Picasso, plus noted amateurs like film director John Huston. Some thought he was being a heretic, that wine bottles had a classic, almost-unreadable style, and should remain that way. Of course, beautiful labels have no influence on the climate, the terroir or the skill of the winemaker, and as someone once said, you can't judge a book by its cover, or even a few pages.
But there's an international competition for label design, and the winners were announced recently. The categories are Successful Innovation, Dramatic Graphics and Classic Style. Ana-Lucia Rosales of New York took gold in the first two for Le Poisson Gris, and Michelle Poole of Seattle was a winner for the 9 Hats label in the classic division. Enjoy!
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RECENT TASTINGS: In no particular order, these wines have pleased a lot, for all the reasons that one likes wine--and then some.
Bogle 2008 California Petite Sirah ($11): A great value, as so many Bogle wines are, with bright berry flavors and a solid finish, with touches of blackberry early, hints of vanilla toward the end.
Ochoa 2009 Spanish rose Garnacha (Grenache) ($9): Slightly darker in color than French roses, with pleasing raspberry notes and good body. Maybe not the wine for a winter dinner, but don't forget lunch goes well with wine, too.
Ochoa 2006 Spanish Navarra Tempranillo ($15): Very youthful, with fruit flavors bright and cheerful throughout. Delicious.
Girard 2008 Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($28): Big and bold with 14.5% alcohol, blackberry notes throughout, superior balance, long finish.
Girard 2008 Napa County Zinfandel ($24): A rugged Zin from Mt. Vaca, the highest point in Napa County, with plummy richness and excellent balance; another 6-12 months in the bottle will make it even richer.
Napa Cellars 2007 Carneros Syrah ($28): A surprising, very faint aroma of violets on a superior example of the wonderful, well-balanced grapes that grow in the Carneros region that drifts into the southern portions of both Napa and Sonoma counties. A big, muscular Syrah, like some of the good ones from Australia, but with finesse in hints of blueberry on the palate. Splendid wine for pasta with a garlicky peppery sauce.
Zaca Mesa 2007 Santa Ynez Syrah ($24) and Mesa Reserve Syrah ($42): Zaca Mesa was the first winery to plant Syrah in Santa Barbara County, about midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles and home to some splendid wines. The reserve spends 26 months in new French oak before bottling, and time is excellence. Red fruits in the flavor and hints of leather in the finish. Very tasty, will improve for a few more years, at which time it will be wonderful. The wine from the Sana Ynez Viticultural District is very good, just lacking some of the finesse and depth of flavor found in the reserve.
Willa Kenzie Estate 2009 Willamette Valley (Washington) Pinot Gris ($20): Crisp and fruity, with a light mineral backtaste, this is fine company to oysters on the half shell, crab claws and other seafood appetizers.
J. Lohr Estates Monterey County Riverstone Chardonnay ($14): Straw yellow and with bright, brisk overtones, citrus notes and some of the buttery notes that come with California Chardonnays, this wine displays excellent balance between alcohol and acid. Good company for a freshly grilled trout, a better match if the trout was hooked in the last 15 minutes.
With the holiday season coming over the horizon, it's time to prepare for visitors, for groups (some would say hordes) of friends, relatives and neighbors, dropping by to wish you well. They may be carrying empty wassail cups in hopes of receiving a refill, in the style of a friend from Dallas who used to carry an empty martini glass while trick-or-treating.
Big box wines, those three-liter containers that are priced in the low $20s, seem to be gaining in popularity or exposure, and can be seen in many wine shops. Like most bulk wines, they're better than they used to be. Many are quite acceptable in terms of quality, and since three liters equals four 750-ml bottles, they're quite a bargain.
Underdog Wine Merchants and Octavin Home Wine Bar, based in Livermore, Calif., make and distribute a number of octagonal wine boxes (hence "octavin"), with both red and white wines from California, New Zealand, Spain and France. A soft-sided plastic container, inside the box, holds the wine, and there's a nifty spigot to decant it. According to Underdog, the wine will keep 4-6 weeks after opening. In addition, the Underdog folks report that using the box instead of four 750-ml glass bottles will reduce packaging waste by 92 percent and decrease carbon emissions by 55 percent.
A couple of Underdogs who had slipped their leashes wound up at my back door recently and, generous soul that I am, I opened the door for a 2008 Boho Vineyards Old Vines Zinfandel ($24) and a non-vintage Spanish red by Bodegas Osborne called Seven ($22) for the seven red varieties that comprise the blend. It begins with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (25 percent each) and continues with Syrah (18), Petit Verdot (8),Tempranillo (8), Grenache (8) and Graciano (8). The latter is a Spanish grape used in Rioja. The wine is very pleasant, similar to a Syrah or to a wine from the Languedoc region of France. It's dark red, with berry and plum flavors and excellent body. I liked it a lot.
I'm a major fan of Zinfandel, but the Boho was a little light and lacked some of the complexity that is present in better Zins.
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AND CHILE, TOO -- Don Sebastiani and Sons winemakers, negociants, importers and members of a legendary California wine family, also have a box-wine outlet. Pepperwood Grove's Big Green Box offers Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and other wines, at about $20, which breaks down to five bucks for the standard 750-milliliter bottle. I sampled the non-vintage Cab and was delighted. The wine is a touch light (no one would confuse it with a French Bordeaux), but it has lots of fruit, good balance and is delightfully drinkable with, say, meat-sauced pasta, right now.
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STYLE AND SUBSTANCE -- Napa Cellars is offering a couple of '09 Chardonnays, one from various Napa areas, including Atlas Peak and Oakville, another, which could be called a reserve, strictly from the small Mount Veeder appellation. The latter ($35), smooth and oaky, has the buttery overtones that distinguishes the better California varieties; it spends nine months in French oak, with two-thirds of that time on the lees. A quarter of the former ($24) is fermented in stainless steel, the rest in French oak, and its six months in steel or wood includes malolactic fermentation. The resulting wine is brighter and crisper, with citrus overtones and a bit of the French Burgundy aura. Very tasty.
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AND SOME OTHER NEW OFFERINGS -- Dry Creek Vineyard's 2009 Sauvignon Blanc ($16) is a delight, with smooth, delicious fruit, pleasing citrus overtones and nice acidity. . . An all-stainless steel version from Bogle ($9) is a splendid value from the same vintage, but lacks some of the finesse shown by its cousin. . . Riesling fans will be pleased by a 2007 from Firestone Vineyards on the Central Coast ($11). It would work very well with Asian dishes. . .
Trefethen, a long-time Napa producer of elegant wines, now has a second label, Double T, with a 2008 Napa Chardonnay ($17) that is a winner in its price range, with aromas of peaches and flavors that are burnished with a hint of cinnamon, a fine accompaniment to roast pork. . . Another Chardonnay, from Dry Creek Vineyards and the Russian River Valley ($20), is rich and buttery and shouts its California heritage.
Adam LaZarre fits the mental picture of a California winemaker, or at least a Californian, with light brown, shaggy, collar-length hair highighted by sun-bleached streaks, smile lines creasing pinkish cheeks, a joyful tone when he talks about wine--any wine-- hands comfortable with the most delicate of crystal wine glasses.
He sat across a table at Wine Styles, a West County retail store, and he squinted as the late-afternoon sun poured through a window.
LaZarre is the winemaker at Villa San-Juliette, a Paso Robles County winery that is a relative rookie in the wine world. Its products, a mostly under-$20 selection of four reds and a Sauvignon Blanc, have been on the market only a couple of years; all are fresh and clean-tasting, with good fruit. The winery is owned by Nigel Lithgoe and Ken Warwick, a pair of Englishmen--Liverpudlians like the Beatles, as a matter of fact--who have hit it big in the world of television as producers of "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance."
And like so many people who go to California and find some excess cash, they decided to go into the wine business. Lithgoe and Warwick bought 168 acres near the town of San Miguel, east of the famed Hearst Castle in San Simeon. LaZarre, a 20-year veteran of the California industry, became the head winemaker, following eight years in a similar role at Hahn Estates Winery in Monterey. LaZarre developed an interest in wine while in the U. S. Navy on the Pacific Coast and after his discharge he enrolled in the enology program at Fresno State University. Like most winemakers, he advanced through the ranks at several wineries, learning varying philosophies and techniques along the way.
He thinks Paso Robles is a splendid place for grapes and wine, and that Villa San-Juliette will be a major player. He also has high hopes for the 2010 vintage, especially the Sauvignon Blanc and the Syrah, which also is a key ingredient of the winery's proprietary blend, Chorum.
"We have nine acres of Syrah," LaZarre said happily, "and we use much of it for the Chorum; it was excellent in the last three years and this year looks as good, or better. The sugars keep going up. The same thing happened with our Sauvignon Blanc, with sugars up and ph down. we picked at 23 or 24 brix and we're looking for good things." The '08 is beautifully fragrant, partly from two months of fermentation at cool temperatures and no malolactic fermentation. Grapefruit and melon are noticeable on the palate.
Interestingly, LaZarre blends some Tempranillo (8 percent) with his Cabernet Sauvignon, and the result is an interesting taste, slightly lighter, intriguing, almost frisky. He also adds some Cab to his Merlot and Petite Sirah, contributing a little more body to the tasty offerings.
But the Chorum, a proprietary wine, is his baby. He describes it as "dense, lush and velvety," which I consider a good description of a wine that is a wonderful value at under $25.
Syrah (31 percent) is the principal grape, but LaZarre then adds Cabernet Sauvignon (28), Merlot (20), Petite Sirah (10), Tempranillo (7), Mourvedre (3) and Petit Verdot (1). It's a big, rich wine, and the 2008, though very good, remains young, probably needing a year or so in the bottle. Then it will improve for many years, shedding its hard edge and becoming exactly what LaZarre claims. There's a touch of tobacco in the finish, which lasts a long and lovely time. Superior stuff.
TASTING NOTES FROM ALL OVER:
Concannon Vineyard--With more than 150 years in the Livermore Valley, the Concannon family offers some first-rate wines in its Conservancy group, in the $15 range. A couple of reds, a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon from 2007, lead the way. The former, with 10 percent Cab for richness, shows dark cherry and blueberry aromas, a touch of tobacco on the tongue, a pleasing finish. The Cab, with 7 percent Syrah for smoothness, is dark and rich, and will be good company with prime rib or a good sirloin.
Zaca Mesa Winery & Vineyards--Based in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County, Zaca Mesa grows a lot of Rhone Valley grapes, including the tasty and versatile Roussane, a white wine with a hint of mineral that makes it work well with many dishes. It is bold enough to complement even richer fish like mackerel, and it's a fine match with roast chicken. Nice oak feeling in the flavor, and excellent alcohol-acid balance. About $25.
Clos du Bois--A veteran Sonoma County winery has an excellent '09 White Riesling ($12) that is an asset to Asian foods, especially those with some spice. A hint of sweetness cuts into the fire and blends nicely with Hunan or Sezchuan fare. Hints of mineral and grapefruit, and a smooth finish are among its assets. A 2007 north coast Merlot ($15) brings dark, plummy flavor and a long finish, just right to accompany a meat loaf.
Frei Brothers--Speaking of Merlot, Frei Brothers (one of the Gallo labels) offers a dandy Merlot ($20) from the same year, with grapes from northern Sonoma County. not that far from the North Coast appellation of Clos du Bois. The Frei Brothers were pioneer growers in northern California, and when Gallo bought the property, they took bulldozers to it and realigned a lot of the vineyards, making good grapes better. The Merlot has a lot of plum and black cherry to the aroma and flavor, and it's soft and very tasty. Merlot and meat loaf is not only an alliterative pairing, but a fine one on the dining table.
Many years ago, on an assignment to visit California wineries, I was cruising north on California Highway 29 through the town of Rutherford in Napa County. I slowed for intersecting traffic and saw, to my right, a small grove of giant Sequoia trees around what looked to be a winery. I turned into the driveway, gazing humbly at the trees, and was introduced to the aptly named Sequoia Grove winery.
Truly a boutique winery, Sequoia Grove's estate vineyard covers only 22 acres, but Michael Trujillo, its president and long-time winemaker, has ties to other Napa vineyards as well. The land where the winery is located can be traced back to early Mexican land grants, and it once belonged to the Diocese of San Francisco, later to the Rutherford family, which gave its name to the town and to a pair of other California wine traditions, the Rutherford Bench, a prime grape-growing area, and Rutherford Dust, which many winemakers believe is part of the soil--or terroir--that makes the wine so exceptional.
The winery was founded in 1980 by the Allen family and named for the trees that surround it, one of the few redwood groves still extant in Napa. Jim Allen retired in 2001 and control passed to the Kopf family, partners inthen winery for 15 years.
The '07 Cab, which retails for under $40, is the successor to the winery's Rutherford Reserve Cabernet, and blends four of the five classic Bordeaux grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon (82 percent), Merlot (12), Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot (6). Winemakers Trujillo and Molly Hill decided not to use the fifth Bordeaux varietal, Malbec, in this particular vintage. The grapes came from six different Napa Valley vineyards, primarily in Rutherford.
It's an excellent wine, dark and rich and with notes of tobacco and currants in the aroma. Raspberries and dark plums are evident on the palate, and the wine is ready now, but another 6-8 months in the bottle should bring it closer to peak, which will last at least another dozen years. The balance is exceptional and the finish is long and elegant. An outstanding wine.
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Beauties from Benziger -- Kathy Benziger, member of a large family that migrated from the Bronx to the Bay (San Francisco, that is) to make new lives as winemakers, was in town on a sales-eat-drink visit recently, with a few superior red wines to accompany some of Lou Rook's kitchen wizardry.
She brought a bright '09 Sauvignon Blanc and a very friendly '07 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir that was a great companion to a Muscovy duck confit. From there, we tasted a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, not quite as polished as the Sequoia Grove discussed above, and a 2006 red varietal called Tribute, a proprietary Bordeaux blend of Cab (70 percent), and lesser amounts of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. A real winner, and in the $90-$100 range, it's a brilliant wine of great complexity with a big aroma and a lot of raspberry on the tongue. Another year or so will make it a star.
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Diamonds from Dry Creek -- Dry Creek Vineyards has been making excellent, moderately priced wines for close to 40 years, working in the gorgeous are of Sonoma County. A couple of new whites are exceptional -- 2008 Foggy Oaks Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley that has superb crispness, a hint of oak and dry, fresh feelings on the palate. At about $20, I think it's a real bargain. Even more of a bargain is the 2009 Dry Chenin Blanc, at about $12. It's made like a French Chablis, with stainless steel fermentation and aging keeping it with mineral-like qualities that combine perfectly with oysters or clams on the shell. Tis one is a terrific value.
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On the Big Box Scene -- Wines in three-liter boxes are bargains, and they're fine for parties and picnics. Don't expect great wine, but some of them are quite good, and Underdog Wine Merchants, the Livermore, Calif., based winemaker and seller, does some tasty and interesting blends. Of course, one winemaker's blend is another winemaker's mixture of whatever still is hanging around the winery, but that's for an expert to figure out. Anyway, Underdog, which describes itself as "a breed apart," now has an '09 Big House White to go along with its Big House Red, a tribute to Randall Grahm, who first used it.
Underdog's white is a brisk, light little wine, easy drinking and mostly dry. It's a blend of Malvasia Bianco, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Muscat Canelli and Viognier and sells for about $20 in its octagonal package. That makes for four standard 750-milliliter bottles, and it won't break if you drop it.
We're into September (my, how time flies when you're having fun), and that means the bubbles are getting ready to pop. The final months of the year, as we build to holiday toasts and year-end greetings, is the time when Champagne and other sparkling wines make the preponderance of their sales. There have been heavy crops in recent years, and the poor economy has kept prices down as well.
Champagne, by French law and a tradition honored by most of the world, comes from a single AOC (controlled area) in northeastern France, covering 34,000 hectares, or about 84,000 acres (a hectare is about 2.47 acres). It is further split into five sub-groups, the Cote des Bars, Cote des Blancs, Cote de Sezanne, Montagne des Reims and Vallee de la Marne.
Reims, Ay, Epernay and the well-named Bouzy are among many villages with plantings both large and small. The underlying soil is largely cretaceous chalk, which provides the unique terroir and the delicious flavor of first-rate Champagne. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier (sometimes Pinot Meunier) grapes are the primary crop and the sparkling wine is made from a single grape or any blend of two or three. "Blanc de Blancs" is made solely from Chardonnay grapes and rose usually comes from Pinot Noir grapes with minimal skin contact to keep the wine from taking on too much red color. Much of the sparkler is made in small batches, with racking and riddling by hand.
A recent tasting offered a delightful experience to anyone who considers Champagne the best of all aperitifs. I tasted six non-vintage Brut offerings, all properly dry, and found small, tight bubbles and excellent, dry flavor. Four will retail for about $60, the others a sawbuck higher, and they will be on many local retail store shelves by mid-October. Of course, with the holidays in sight, there will be a lot of sparkling wine out there--both imported and domestic--at price ranges from single digits to many hundreds of dollars.
It's worth a search for a trustworthy wine-seller; upper-class Englishmen always have claimed that a gentleman needed three people with that character trait, a wine-seller, a tailor and a bookmaker.
My favorite was a Brut Rose from Henri Billiot in the village of Ambonnay (Montagne des Reims). I'm very fond of rose wines, both still and sparkling; the still offerings from the Cotes de Provence, mostly from Grenache or Syrah grapes, sing of a seat overlooking the Mediterranean Sea with a light breeze and a lunch to match. This offering had a lovely bubble and a crisp flavor with a delightful tingle. It was on the expensive side, as was another Montagne des Reims offering from Vilmart and Co., whose vineyards are in Rilly-la-Montagne, and dubbed Cuvee Grand Cellier. Good fruit, with the Chardonnay flavors under good control.
I was taken by two wines from the Vallee de la Marne, a Carte Verte from Gaston Chiquet of Vizy, and a Cuvee Prestige from Henri Goutorbe of Ay. Both were delicious, with slight earth tones to balance the citrus values in the grapes. Wines from that area always cause me to pause for a moment. The World War I battles at the Marne were so fierce, so deadly, and so many young soldiers are buried where they fell, that it's wine to grieve for, not to honor, a war. The battlefield park, more than 90 years old, remains one of the most poignant sights I've ever seen.
The last two are from the Cotes des Blancs, a 2005 Cuvee Gastronome (the only vintage-dated wine in the tasting) from Pierre Gimonnet of Cuis, and a Cuvee de Reserve from Pierre Peters of Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger. The latter displayed a fascinating tingle on the tongue, probably from high carbonation), and the former showed a hint of peach behind its citrus, tart notes.
None of these are real bargains, but they are excellent values in comparison with many French imports.
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A Couple of California Winners: J. Lohr, a veteran winemaker in the Monterey area, has a delightful Napa Valley entry in this '09 Sauvignon Blanc, from Carol's Vineyard, north of St. Helena. Good citrus flavors, primarily grapefruit, a little passion fruit, no oak, $24. Equally impressive is a 2008 Syrah from Paso Robles that involves two clones, one American and one Australian. The winemaker triumphed in the blend, with a full nose, a strong flavor of dark cherries, tannins that already are softening and which should be delightfully smooth after cellaring until spring and a long, brisk finish. $28.
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And Winners at Home: It was Stone Hill against the world in the recent Missouri wine competition, and Stone Hill won by a landslide. I don't serve as a judge any more, and I don't know how many entries there were, but things seem a little out of balance when a single winery--Stone Hill--wins eight of 12 Best of Class medals and 13 of 41 Gold Medals, plus the Governor's Cup for the best overall wine. There were too many silver and bronze medals to even count the winners.
Time was when the judges tasted and scored the wines. The top wine in its class earned gold, the next two got silver and bronze, respectively. But when the competition became a marketing arm for winery sales, things changed. Each wine is judged on a point scale, and wines earning a set number of points got medals. I don't know what the various goals were, but looking at the number of winners, the bar isn't set very high.
There now are close to 100 wineries in the state, and the politically oriented Wine and Grape Board seems more interested in improving cash flow than wine quality. I'm certain that a number of winery people will be offended, but I think awarding so many medals just cheapens their value. It's like social promotion in schools, fine for the family, not worth much in terms of real learning.
Stone Hill's 2009 Sweet Vignoles won the Governor's Cup and best in the Sweet White class, and the Hermann winery won the other two white wine categories with dry and semi-dry also earning best-in-class honors for two other versions of the 2009 Vignoles (Dry and Semi-Dry Vignoles. Other best-in-class winners for Stone Hill were dry red, 2008 Cross J Vineyard Norton; semi-dry red, 2009 Steinberg red; late harvest/ice, 2008 late harvest Vignoles; dessert/fortified, 2006 Port.
Other best-in-class champions were: fruit wine, Pirtle Winery, blackberry mead; sweet red, Mellow Red; sparkling wine, Les Bourgeois Brut; blush, Chaumette Vineyards & Winery, 2009 Spring Rose. Runners-up as gold-medal winners were: Montelle, 4; Les Bourgeois, Chaumette, Adam Puchta, Pirtle, 3 each; Mount Pleasant, 2; Inland Sea, Jowler Creek, Native Home, Peaceful Bend, St. James, Stonehaus, Twin Oaks, 1 each.
Named by Indians or by 17th- and 18th-century frontiersmen mimicking them, we have Canandaigua, Cayuga, Conesus, Heneoye, Keuka, Otisco, Owasco, Seneca and Skaneateles, plus a few smaller ones. Their general shape gives the region the name of the Finger Lakes. It encompasses 14 counties, the remains of the Erie Canal, beaches on Lake Ontario, more than 100 wineries, a handful of breweries and distilleries, 115 museums, 160 golf courses and 14 professional theater companies.
While the Finger Lakes region has been a popular vacation spot for New Yorkers and other Easterners for many years, it often seems that non-New Yorkers don't know it and, as the opening scene in "The Music Man" points out, "You gotta know the territory!"
It isn't all rural, either, with cities like Syracuse, Rochester, Ithaca and others offering their own attractions. Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, also is in the region.
I hadn't been in the area for many years, and on the way home from a drive through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachussetts, we decided to come home via the New York Thruway, the Mohawk River Valley and the Finger Lakes. And the New York wine country.
Canandaigua, Cayuga, Keuka and Seneca are the main wine lakes, and a drive along the latter (the deepest and largest, about 38 miles from end to end) showed vineyard-heavy land rolling down to bright blue water, and many wineries, all with tasting rooms. The area obviously is heavily trafficked on weekends, and tasting rooms displayed welcoming signs. On a whim and a thirst, we dropped in on Anthony Road, on the west side of the lake about a third of the way from Geneva (where the Geneva Double Curtain trellis system was devised), at the north end of the lake to Watkins Glen (where they do a lot of car racing) at the south.
Well, there were a lot of them, with the same vinifera and hybrid grapes grown throughout the region, and throughout the world for that matter. A climate that is more temperate in the winter, without the abrupt fluctuation we find in Missouri, allows for more production of vinifera grapes, like Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Gewurztraminer, and some of the more popular hybrids, like Vignoles, also popular.
We sampled a large handful, with our favorite a 2008 Gewurztraminer, which had nice lychee notes and a pleasing tingle on the tongue. A Cabernet Franc rose, pale in color, dry and with attractive fruit, also earned favor. A Pinot Gris was crisp, and a Vignoles, slightly on the sweet side, would have been nice with fruit for dessert and the pinot noir displayed cherry overtones that were excellent. A proprietary red, called Devonian, was rich and tasty, blended from Cabernet Franc (60 percent), Pinot Noir (36) and Lemberger (4), and a Lemberger (55)-Cabernet Franc (45) blend from 2007 showed promise, but needs more time in the bottle to soften the tannins.
All in all, nicely made wines with clean, orderly manners and nice flavor, helped by a gorgeous view down to the lake.
With picnics and poolsides a couple of favorite places to enjoy summer wines, we've been spending more time visiting and sipping than writing in recent weeks and we hereby apologize. But there are a lot of bargains and some good tasting out there, along with a few interesting trends in the wine business.
Jordan, founded by Tom Jordan, who grew up in Mount Vernon, Ill., and became a successful petroleum engineer, built one of the most elegant estates in northern California and makes wine to match the architecture and decor of his Alexander Valley winery. Five years ago, he persuaded his son, John, an attorney, to take over the winery. Samples of the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2008 Chardonnay arrived recently, representing the new generation of Jordans.
The Cab, at $52, may not be a bargain, but it's a splendid wine, rich and round, with bright flavor of berries and currants, a long finish, and worth a splurge. The blend is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19.5% Merlot, 4.5% Petit Verdot and 1% Malbec, two-thirds aged in French oak and the remainder in American oak. A year in barrel and two years in bottle gives it sufficient age to be drinkable now, though another couple of years in the cellar will show a discernible difference in body and flavor. The Chardonnay, from Russian River Valley ($29) grapes, seems a little more classic French in style, without as much of the big, buttery quality that some California offerings still show and that is too intrusive for me. The simpler French Chablis style works better with food, especially oysters on the shell or crab legs.
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The bargain side is demonstrated by three French imports from Bordeaux, and yes, the price of $10 for the white and the rose, $12 for the red, is not a typo. Of course these are not Grand Cru, First Growth Bordeaux wines, but they are good companions to a meal, whether at home or in the back yard or a state park or just at a side-of-the-road picnic table. These are young, bright, frisky wines that can be quaffed. They are not great wines, but they're nice drinking right now.
Bordeaux, by the way, covers a lot of territory in southwestern France
The white, an '09 from Chateau de Parenchere, is a blend of mostly Sauvignon Blanc, with some Semillon and Muscadet. The citrus notes of the Sauvignon come through nicely. I'm not a fan of Semillon; it tends to bring flabbiness to usually crisp white wines, but there seems to be only a small amount, adding some flavor and a little body. A pleasant aperitif, too, but take it off the ice for a half-hour or so before drinking. Too much cold hurts the flavor.
The red, from Marquis de Chasse, is from 2007, and is a basic Bordeaux blend (60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc). It's a little on the light side, but has a pleasant flavor. Not sophisticated or world-class, but drinkable and a nice companion to some hamburgers on the grill.
And the rose, from Axel des Vignes, was brisk and appealing, fresh and flavorful, with a hint of strawberry. Perfect with a chicken sandwich, or even a bacon, lettuce and tomato.
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Speaking of rose wines, Angove, an Australian producer, has a Nine Vines 2008 Rose that also is a winner. Grenache (70 percent) and Syrah (30) is a traditional blend for good fruit, crisp berry flavors and a dryness that is easy on the palate.
At the price-conscious edge of today's spectrum, a couple of ten-buck specials from Concannon Vineyard, a Central Coast standby for more than 125 years. John Concannon, a fourth-generation vintner, has a 2007 Shiraz and a 2009 Riesling in his Selected Vineyards collection. Both are excellent values and tasty drinking. The former, a delightful companion to lamb or wild game, has raspberry notes and a suprisingly long finish for a wine in this price range. The Riesling, a touch sweeter, shows off citrus and pear, with pleasing acidity that makes it work well with spicy Asian or Latin American fare.
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Judy Jordan, founder and president of J Winery, in Healdsburg, decided some 20 years ago that she wanted a career in the wine business, but not at the family winery. Her winery, not very far from the one now operated by her brother, became known for elegant, delicious sparkling wine, then spread into various still wines, led by a glorious 2007 Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, priced at about $35. It's an elegant wine, almost delicate, but with a strong backbone. Winemaker George Bursick leads it through malolactic fermentation, then ages it for 15 months in French oak barrels and another six months (at least) in bottles. There are violets in the aroma, traditional cherry with a hint of clove on the palate.
Pinot Noir, the great grape of Burgundy, is as happy in the Russian River Valley as it is in its French homeland, and the J version is a delight. A little tannin holds on, but another few years should smooth it out even further.
The old and the new blend nicely in Hermann, Missouri, and a weekend spent among spring flowers and old friends, with the added benefit of good wine and food, always lifts the spirits. The last weekend of April has become a regular trip to celebrate the release of a new vintage of Norton, Stone Hill Winery's prime red wine, and to re-taste some of my favorite older ones.
Stone Hill, which Jim and Betty Held have led and operated for a half-century, was among the first topics a rookie wine writer discussed. The year was 1973, and I did my first tour of the state's wineries as I added wine to my writing portfolio.
For the last 22 years, Stone Hill has been host to a 10-year vertical tasting of its Norton, from a native American grape discovered on the East Coast by early settlers. The formal name of the grape is vitis aestivalis, as compared with European classics like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay which are vitis vinifera, or America vines like Concord and Catawba, which are vitis lambrusca. The vertical tasting, which involves the same wine for a number of years, included 2009, the most recent vintage, which still is in process, and 2008, still in the barrel. The 2007 was released the day of the tasting, and we sampled each vintage back to 2000. A horizontal tasting, by the way, involves many wines from the same year.
Most of the wines I tasted are very good, a few were superb, the younger ones show signs they will mature into excellence. And once again, as it has been for the last five or six years, my favorite was the 2002. It's an amazing wine, full-bodied, rich and bold. The hard tannins have vanished, to be replaced by a dark cherry aroma and blackberries, leather and cedar on the palate. There's spice and great length in the finish. It's one of the best wines that Dave Johnson, the long-time Stone Hill winemaker, ever has made. My second choice was the 2005, a rich, plummy version whose tannins are fading and is a superior accompaniment to steak or fat, juicy hamburgers right off the grill. The '03 is another potential winner, as is the barrel sample, from 2008, which shows signs of great maturity ahead.
All the wines, even the 10-year-old 2000 vintage, still were tasty and drinkable, but if I had any 2000's in my basement (a more accurate word than "cellar," for the place where I store my wines), I'd work to finish them within a year or so, before they start over the hill.
The Held family brought out another new release, a 2009 dry Vignoles, and it was brilliant. At 14 percent alcohol, it's a little higher than most white wines, but the crispness and acidity give it fine balance. It shows some mineral texture, sharp citrus notes in the fruit and a smooth finish that makes it shine with spicy food, like Asian curries, or with a roast chicken well rubbed with garlic to heighten its flavor. The wine also works by itself, well-chilled, as a superior summer aperitif.
From the Stone Hill lawn, high above the town, the view includes just about all of Hermann, right to the Missouri River that flows past it. Sometime in the 1830s, it was settled by German immigrants who had been told they would think they were right at home alongside the Rhine. Wine was an integral part of their lifestyle, and they brought the love and the skill to make their own. With the exception of a 25-year interruption for Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II, they've been doing it since.
Downtown Hermann, across First Street from the river, is home to Hermannhof Winery, rescued from oblivion by Jim and Mary Dierberg, who are rehabbing, rebuilding and upgrading much of the riverfront. In addition to the winery, the Dierbergs remodeled the old Festhalle into an elegant hotel, conference and party space, moved several old homes--stone by stone--and turned them into bed-and-breakfast accomodations near the winery, made an old grain elevator and warehouse into the Tin Mill Brewery, run by their daughter, Ellen, and created a park for sitting and picknicking. Hermannhof makes lots of wine across the spectrum, from dry to sweet.
Dierberg's wine interests go beyond Hermann, and Hermannhof visitors can sample excellent wines from his property in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County. Classic vinifera grapes grow there, and the wines are delightful. Winemaker Nick de Luca uses three labels, Star Lane, Dierberg and Three Saints. The featured wine is the Star Lane Astral, a Cabernet Sauvignon whose grapes come from three specific blocks growing at the highest point of the vineyards. The 2005 vintage shows the balance and style that age will contribute. It's a rich and wondrous wine.
Star Lane also makes Cabernet Sauvignon from other areas of the valley, and Syrah and Merlot as well. The Syrah, tasted against an Australian Shiraz, showed a little more body and depth of flavor, though the fruit-forward style of the Aussies was very good.
And if you're in Hermann, and anxious to stock up on meats for home consumption, put your cooler in the car and visit Swiss Meat and Sausage, 12 miles south of Hermann on Highway 19. Swiss used to be a town of its own, but Hermann annexed it some years ago. Mike Sloan and his family make terrific bacon, hams and sausages of all types. The Sloans have dozens of different sausages and bratwurst, from buffalo, pork, elk and other animals, plus salamis and bolognas that seem to go on forever. Samples abound, and a lunch counter offers a variety of sandwiches and snacks. It's a small detour for a very large treat.
And that brings us to the Trefethen family, with a third generation in play today, but with quality and dedication in the vineyard and the winery to certainly allow it to qualify for a dynasty label, at least a budding one.
Gene and Katie Trefethen began the operation in 1968; a corporate executive and successful fund-raiser, he found some backing and purchased 600 acres in the heart of the Napa Valley, between Yountville and Napa. The price of $3000 an acre seemed astounding, but its value has grown astronomically in the past 40 years. Their son, John, and his wife, Janet, began making wine in 1973 and introduced it to the market in 1975. Four years later they and their winemaker, David Whitehouse Jr., won a gold medal at the Gault-Millau Wine Olympics in Paris with their 1975 Chardonnay.
Trefethen estate-bottled wines have been high on any list of American offerings ever since. The vineyards offer nine grapes, Chardonnay, Viognier, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, with 13 different Chardonnay and 10 different Cabernet Sauvignon clones among the 48 clones in 63 vineyard blocks. It's quite a lot of bunches of grapes, all from the Oak Knoll region of the Napa Valley
Two new Trefethen wines--well, one newly released and the other its six-year-old twin-- have joined the roster under the Double T label and to honor Loren and Hailey Trefethen, 20-something children of John and Janet. At the moment, Loren is in the sales and business end, his kid sister is a winemaker.
The 2007 Double T Napa Valley Red Wine, a classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Merlot, is a good value at $25. A year in a combination of French and American oak gives it solidity in the relatively long finish, and there are excellent notes of plums and berries in the aroma and flavor. Perfect to go with steaks and roasts, or burgers off the grill.
The newcomer is the initial release of the 2008 Double T Napa Valley Chardonnay ($17), a wine of considerable elegance. Its crispness will make it work with a shellfish appetizer, and it has the body to pair well with fish or chicken. There is a lot of fruit in the nose, with melon and citrus showing nicely, and a hint of vanilla in the finish.
Both are ready for drinking now, particularly the Chardonnay; I like them bright and frisky, but I think a year or so would bring more roundness and structure to the red.
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MORE INNOVATIVE PACKAGING: If you like screwcaps and boxed wine, get ready for bottles made of plastic. Several companies, like the worldwide Sassie, based in South Africa but with Italian and South American connections, are using them, including a Californian producer, CalNaturale. On the plus side, they're lightweight and unreakable, just right for taking to the beach or on a picnic. I've tasted the Sassie wines and found them acceptable, though not great. I don't know if this is because of the packaging, the grapes or the winemaking, but they are inexpensive. If I find CalNaturale, I'll report on it.
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RECENT TASTINGS: Dry Creek Vineyards offered a pair from 2006, a Cab and a Heritage Zinfandel. Both are superior wines. The former, leading with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (90 percent) and with small amounts of Merlot (6), Petit Verdot (3) and Cabernet Franc (1) is a superior bottle, with outstanding flavor and marvelous richness. The Zin was brilliant, rich and oaky, good for another dozen years in the cellar, with great flavor and a long finish.
Three moderately priced 2007 wines from Napa Cellars, all from Napa Valley grapes, were quite worthy in their $22-$30 price range. Acab fr Merlot had a big plummy aroma, good berry flavors and a long finish. Cabernet Sauvignon showed blackberries, plus a hint of clove in the aroma, and Zinfandel, so dark it's practically purple, brought delicious spice and a nice sweetness from oak barrels.
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AND FOR DESSERT: Eisrebe, a sweet dessert wine from Joseph Phelps Vineyards, is a delight and carries a story. In 1916, Georg Scheu, a German botanist crossed Sylvaner and Riesling grapes which eventually were named Scheurebe, in his honor. The Phelps family eventually planted some on their Napa Valley property and made dessert wine in the style ofn ice wine. Instead of allowing the grapes to freeze, Phelps winemakers harvested the grapes froze them and allowed them to thaw before making them into a sweet wine called Eisrebe. The 2007 vintage, heavy with apricot overtones and extremely sweet, was harvested at 23 brix and vinified with 21 percent residual sugar. That's sweet--and delicious.
"I've always liked wines that went well with food," he said, lifting a bottle and pouring the deep garnet wine into a glass. "That's why I named this one 'Affinity,' because it goes so well with dinner, and it's made to be ready rather early in its life."
The 2006 Affinity, a classic Bordeaux blend, is a year or so away from being a superior wine; it's an extremely enjoyable companion to dinner today but will improve dramatically and deserves another year of aging in the bottle. It's 76 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, one percent above the minimum for using the name of its primary grape, and three more Bordeaux grapes, Merlot (13 percent), Cabernet Franc (6) and Petite Verdot (5) round out the blend. Retail is about $50, and well worth it. The wine is rich, with deep berry and black fruit notes and a touch of coffee in the finish. The grapes are sourced from Craig's vineyard, shown below, just south of Stag's Leap. Merlot softens and adds roundness to the Cabernet Sauvignon while Cab Franc and Petite Verdot bring brightness and spice.
Craig has been a Napa vintner for many years, with his own vineyard on Howell Mountain established in 1992 and producing Cabernets since 1995. He was deeply involved with the Hess Collection, Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder in the 1980s before going out on his own.
Craig also had two other delicious, expensive '06 Cabs on display, one from Howell Mountain in a vineyard at 2300 feet, the other from classic Mt. Veeder, a few hundred feet lower. Both wines are deep in color, with many layers of flavor and long, loving finishes.
Howell Mountain (about $80) is 84 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 12 percent Merlot and 4 percent Cabernet Franc, unfiltered and unfined, which adds to the richness and body. Mt. Veeder (about $70) is an 81-19 mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; the higher percentage of the latter grape makes it a little softer, and there's a hint of cocoa in the later stages. Both wines need additional aging, maybe two years in a corner of the basement or a dining room closet, but they will reward a drinker's patience.
The 2008 Chardonnay is from the Durell vineyard, close to the Carneros region at the southern end of Napa County. Lots of citrus and melon aroma and flavor, and a nice hit of mineral toward the end. A very good Chardonnay, at about $50 retail.
OTHER TASTINGS -- A couple of elegant Sauignon Blancs reached the tasting table recently, providing delightful companions to seafood. Joseph Phelps, a consistently superior Napa Valley producer, offered a 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (about $30) that had wonderful mineral qualities and a lovely honeydew aroma. Light, crisp and delicious. Dry Creek Vineyard, from Sonoma County, has a slightly different variety of the Sauvignon Blanc called Sauvignon Musque, from the Taylor Vineyard (about $25). It has more complexity than other Sauvignon Blancs I've tasted, and a great deal of citrus on the palate. It's splendid. Prices, by the way, are approximate retail.
Argentina contributes some excellent red wines at lower prices, primarily from Malbec grapes. The Alamos label is used by the Catena family, based in Mendoza, and its 2008 Malbec (about $13) is hearty, with blackberry and plum notes in a deeply colored wine with a long finish. This wine is perfect with pizza or pasta.
"Sassie," says the artistic black script on the bottle, which holds a standard 750 milliliters of California-grown Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. The Chardonnay is a 2007 vintage, the reds from 2006; all are vinted and bottled in the Sonoma County town of Geyserville. The project is by a Toronto-based group, the Sassie International Vintners and Distillers Group, Inc., (www.sassie.com) and are distributed in the U.S. by Stateside Cellars of Mill Valley, Calif. (www.statesidecellars.com), which has a huge mail-order business, representing more than 30 producers from 10 different nations.
The wines have been on the market less than a year, but the plastic bottle is just the latest of many new packaging techniques, including boxed wine and screw caps, whose presence has been growing rapidly. Sassie wines come in a traditional-looking wine bottle made of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, used as a packaging material and in carpets, as fill in ski jackets and in T-shirts. It's recyclable, unbreakable under normal handling, is less expensive and only one-eighth the weight of glass, and is recyclable. According to South African-born Denis Sasman, his wine can be kept in its plastic bottle for up to two weeks after opening without any problems.
Sassie began with California wines, obviously because they are more familiar to American drinkers, and because the $10 price point would encourage experimentation with the new bottle. But Sasman has expansion on his mind. Plans are for Italian wines in plastic bottles with the Sassie label in 2010, and for South African wines in 2011.
And the wines? Well, at $10, they are a good value and a pleasant drink, and they are food-friendly, as Sasman says they are and will be. The Chardonnay has a nice crispness, and good acidity, and will complement fish. The reds are slightly rough, with good tannins and sufficient body in the reds to make the Cab a nice match with pot roast or goulash, and the Merlot a good companion to pasta. They do not have pretensions of being great wines, they will age and improve for a year or two, but probably should be drunk in the next few months.
Well, here we are again --Thanksgiving is upon us and we haven't bought wine yet. The good thing is that all wine stores are open and bulging at the seams with good values at good prices. Another good thing is that the Beaujolais Nouveau hype seems to be mostly behind us. All the stories were mainly arranged for television, which truly buys into hype in a big way, as long as there are pictures to accompany it. But tales of fast planes like the Concorde and speedboats and such, getting the bottles to the restaurants just before midnight, were so much malarkey. The wine has been around for several weeks being distributed to retailers and bars.
There's less of that these days, and wine shops are carrying less of it. Some local outlets have only one or two different winemakers.
Beaujolais Nouveau, by the way, is from the 2009 vintage, so it has no aging of any sort except a few weeks in the bottle. It is made in the Beaujolais region, which borders on Burgundy, and is made from Gamay grapes, or is supposed to be. It is light of body, easy to drink and will not improve with age. Drink it by New Year's Eve, or certainly by George Washington's birthday, or mine, which occurs earlier in the same month. It does go well with turkey, and it is inexpensive. But you probably can get a better wine for the same amount of money.
But for the sake of continuity, I did sample a few. A couple arrived on my doorstep a week before the magic day (the Thursday before Thanksgiving).
Georges Duboeuf makes a Beaujolais Nouveau and a Beaujolais Villages Nouveau, which is a little better and a dollar more expensive ($11 against $10). The Villages has good flavor and balance, pleasant flavor and is a worthy drink. Its cousin has a floral nose, a flavor of strawberry and a short finish.
Joseph Drouhin, a veteran winemaker like Duboeuf, offers a $10 Nouveau that is more reminiscent of cherries than strawberries. It shows medium body, not much finish and some tannins that are not very well balanced. Laboure-Roi, another long-time producer ($11) brings an aroma and a flavor of cherry jello and was sweet on the palate.
All right, so what would I recommend for the Thanksgiving table? My first recommendation is to visit your wine-seller, tell him (or her) how much you want to spent and ask for a French Gamay or a California (or Oregon) Pinot Noir that's on the lighter side. You'll end up with a wine that will be excellent with your meal, and a tab of less than $15.
Something more specific? Well, I tasted an excellent Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir recently, though it did cost $24, and for the white wine fancier, a Mondavi Fume Blanc ($18) that is superior with fowl. A pair of value wines from Bogle, each $11, included a 2007 Zinfandel and a 2006 Petite Sirah. Dry Creek Vineyard has a Sonoma County Heritage Zinfandel, at $18, that will be fine company on the dining room table.
There's a great deal of bargain-hunting in wine shops these days. Only bankers, brokers (stock, not ticket) and professional athletes can afford the really good stuff. The rest of us are scrambling. But thankfully, with some winemakers and wineries also feeling some financial pressure, there are good values on shelves and lists.
While I know there are other bargain opportunities out there, I've enjoyed some recent tastings, at a dinner with David Mirassou, scion of the Napa County-based winery that posts a legitimate claim to being the most venerable of the California winemaking families, and with some samples from Bogle, the long-time Sonoma County producer of tasty wines at the lower end of the price scale. And Dan Kravitz, the Brooklyn-born (in a neighborhood very close to mine) wine importer who lives in Maine and whose headquarters are in Virginia, was the host at a Wine & Cheese Place tasting that displayed 10 wines from France, Spain and Argentina at $16 or less.
Kravitz works with smaller properties in Europe and South America, and had some excellent examples. Foremost was a 2007 Boniface Apremont ($16), made from the Jacquere grape, a new experience for me. The white grapes grow only in Savoie, in the French Alps, and the light wine displayed a slight, lovely tingle on the tongue. There's an aroma of flowers, with a hint of mint, and the flavor has a bit of pepper and some lemon behind that. Producers recommend it with fish, but I see it equally promising as an aperitif. I can't recall tasting wine from Jacquere grapes, but I'd be happy to drink it again.
Another interesting offering was an '06 IA Garnacha, 100 percent Grenache from Spain ($10), with a nice smoothness and pleasing raspberry overtones. A similar wine from Kravitz' own estate in France called Domaine Cabireau Serge and Tony ($15) is a little richer than the Spanish version even if it is a year younger, and its name is less complex than the wine. Serge takes care of the vineyard and Tony is the winemaker. Among his Argentine wines, an '07 Sauvignon Blanc from Alfredo Roca ($8) had a charming mineral quality and a nice touch of citrus, and an '06 Cabernet Sauvignon ($11) with the proprietary name of Altura 1024, for the 1024-meter (about 3300 feet) altitude of the vineyards, was a deep, hearty red that called forth images of roast beef or T-bone steak.
French Cotes du Rhone blends of Syrah, Grenache, maybe some Cinsault, or Mouvedre, or Carignan, depending on the winemaker's prererence, show up in several of Kravitz' wines, like a French Terre de Mistral ($13) or a Spanish Cuvee des Galets ($13). They do not have a lot of finesse, but they're hearty and they make excellent companions to a simple meal of pizza, pasta or hamburgers.
Pierre and Henrietta Pellier emigrated from France in 1854, bringing cuttings of Pinot Noir and other grapes from their own vineyards and replanting them in California's Monterey and Santa Clara valleys. They made wine, and their daughter, also Henrietta, married Pierre Mirassou, a neighboring grape farmer. With 155 years of winemaking experience behind them, the Mirassous are among the California pioneers; about three years ago, Mirassou became part of the Gallo empire. David Mirassou, the sixth generation of the family, is a spokesman who, like many winemakers and their families, go on tour after the harvest, selling and talking and drinking their wine, which sells in the $12-13 range.
Mirassou talked about five of his wines over dinner recently, starting with a crisp, tasty 2008 Sauvignon Blanc that showed considerable acidity and tartness. An '07 Chardonnay, about half aged in American oak, the rest in stainless steel, was light but with a pleasing flavor, and using steel helped reduce the big, buttery flavor which many like and as many dislike, finding it overpowering.
Three reds were more successful. An '08 Pinot Noir was young but fruity, though it's hard to tell how longer it will improve. Best of the group, in my opinion, was an '06 Merlot with grapes mainly from Paso Robles and Lodi, and a little Zinfandel and Syrah for added complexity. Soft and rich, its flavor opening and becoming tastier with every sip. It's a splendid value. Almost as good was a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon , also with grapes sourced from Paso Robles and Lodi, where hot summers build the sugar content and bring bigger black currant flavors and more body to the wine.
Another six-generation wine family, the Bogles of Clarksburg, make some of the most drinkable inexpensive wines in California. Farmers since the mid-19th century, the Bogles are late arrivals in wine, starting in 1968 when Warren Bogle and his son, Chris, planted the first 20 acres of grapes.
Like me, the Bogles prefer red wine, and four 2009 releases from the 2007 vintage demonstrate their skills in offering well-made wine at $11 a bottle, except for the Merlot, which is just $9. Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah, from grapes grown in the Bogles' own Clarksburg neighborhood and in Lodi or along the Central Coast, are wines with elegance and backbone.
The Zin, from vines 40-80 years old, is rich and dark, mellow and round with hints of pepper and spicy chocolate in the finish. Ten months in American oak give it tannin and a touch of wood, but also indications that the wine will age nicely. Cabernet Sauvignon, with 14 months in American oak, is certainly drinkable now, and should improve for 5-7 years. A plum nose tickles the palate. Bogle has long made a specialty of Petite Sirah, first producing it in 1978, and using grapes from Lodi and its home territory of Clarksburg. Blackberries are noticeable in the aroma, and leather and oak in the flavor. It's a wine that shows individuality and the winemaker's skill. Merlot, lush and mellow, also is a winner.