Thursday, April 19, 2018

Rico Soave Batting 1000

The wine world is full of elusive unicorns: drinkable pinot noir for under $20...California chardonnay that doesn't clobber you with oak and alcohol...domestic reds that go well with food...

Another unicorn is a sure thing.  Whether a producer, grape, region, method, style, there are very few corners in the market that you can experiment in without feeling like your hard-earned money is at risk of being wasted, or at least under-utilized.  The search for these sure things is what makes loving wine - and writing about it - fun.  The companion experiences of hunt and discovery can be at times disappointing, but such luxurious pursuits surely beat a day at the office.

People who want a shortcut to a sure thing often ask what my "go-to" wine is.  The truth is that it changes, not just because of vintage variation, but because tastes change from season to season, and as we age.  But from time to time I have a ready answer to that question.  Today, it's Soave Classico.

The Soave of my adolescence was insipid plonk my parents only occasionally had the courtesy of refrigerating.  So rancid, it could only be choked down when mixed with Sprite.  But Italian winemaking (and availability of product) has come a long way in the decades since.  A couple of years ago I rediscovered Soave (Soave Classico specifically) at a simple lunch in Florence.  Since that day, I haven't had a bad bottle - and it hasn't been for lack of exploration.  Nor have I spent more than $16.

The term Soave is given to dry white wine from the Veneto region of Italy made primarily (if not entirely, of the garganega grape. Classico is a subzone of the broader Soave region characterized by hillside vineyards surrounding Verona. (Similarly, Chianti also had a Classico subzone, or DOC - Italy's counterpart to the US' AVA.)

What does it taste like? White flowers over ripe pear, apple, and lemon, framed by minerality and luminescence.  Not enough to get your off the couch?  What really sets it apart is the texture: supple and beckoning, its simplicity has an irresistible allure; a come-hitherness.  This I have found in just about every Soave Classico I've had.  Very few wine styles, grapes, regions, or producers bat anywhere north of .500, especially at reasonable prices.  The 2016 Suavia Soave Classico pictured below will set you back a mere $13.

So, as we lurch into porch season, this discovery is worth sharing - and seeking out.  Enjoy!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Recycle Bin, Week of March 19

It's been a blissful season of wine drinking, having made some terrific discoveries at the intersection of high enjoyment and low price.  Experiences like these don't come along too often, so when they do, I make it a point to stock up.  Not surprisingly, these are

Also included in this lineup is one more from Markus Niggli, whose new line of Markus red wines were reviewed recently.

2015 Tenuta Regaleali Tasca Bianco Sicily $10
Magnificent! Minerals and a luxurious texture characterize this elegant white that gives and gives.  Not too rich, but not too shy, either.  This is my new favorite wine.  It makes me happy.  Kitchen sink blend of inzolia (47%), grecanico (22%), catarratto (25%), chardonnay (6%)

2015 Podere Scopetone Sangiovese Montalcino $15
Talk about purity! Unblemished by oak or any other interference, the brilliance of this gorgeous red shines through with honesty.  Made of 100% sangiovese grosso (same variety that goes into Brunello) and fermented in stainless steel, the expressive acidity make for an exciting wine.  Hard to go back to drinking Chianti after trying this bargain.

2015 Tenuta Santa Maria Soave Lepia $14
Bordering on opulent, this full-bodied Soave oozes elegance and charm.  Made of the garganega grape, this white offers up white flower blossom aromatics and a lovely, full mouth feel.  An eye-opener for those whose reference points for Soave are watered-down, insipid wines.
2015 Markus Carignane Domo Lodi $39
While at the higher end of the price spectrum, this is a most unusual specimen. Lovely and with a backbone, its luminous garnet shimmer is with perfumed aromatics wafting beyond the rim. Kaleidoscope of flickering flavors wrapped in high frequency spices play across a solid structure that sits in the foreground. Bright and beaming and complex. Wow.


Monday, March 12, 2018

2015 Stony Hill Chardonnay

Lamentations regarding California chardonnay's steady decline into homogeneity have been well-documented on this site.  Uniformity, however, is a secondary compliant to what is more troubling: most of them are too rich, have too much residual sugar, are too cloying, and have been subjected to way too much oak.  This too-much-of-everything character has often given the impression of being yelled at. 

In what feels like a cosmic attempt to prove that there are exceptions to the rule, three impressive samples of northern California chardonnay arrived all close together.  FEL's complex chard from Anderson Valley and  Smith-Madrone's majestic chardonnay from up on Spring Mountain were very solid without betraying the archetypal identity that California chardonnay has become synonymous with.  But Stony Hill's throwback bottling - also from Spring Mountain - is a haunting wine that won me over, even if it took a few days for the infatuation to set in. 

2015 Stony Hill Chardonnay Spring Mountain $48
Pale, straw like color leads into a rich, concentrated, almost animalistic nose.  Very round and plump, showing deep, clean fruit framed by glycerine, vanilla, a velvety texture, and even a shimmer of acidity to round it out. Delivers all of this with a mercifully moderate alcohol level. After a few days open, it really relaxed and developed its harmonious side; a sign that this would be a fun wine to revisit in years to come. A languid wine unafraid to be what it is but without being showy. Unique and memorable, if pricey.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Smith-Madrone, King and Queen

If cabernet is king in Napa, certainly chardonnay is the queen.  A sample bottle of each from Spring Mountain stalwart Smith-Madrone arrived recently for review.  I've very much enjoyed past vintages and other bottlings from this family-run operation. Though many wineries in Napa Valley remain small and family-owned, few can claim what Smith-Madrone does: 100% dry farmed estate wines.  This is no small feat and absolutely impacts what comes into the cellar.  For those who can pull it off - and pull it off well - the resulting wines ooze authenticity.

A year ago I had the pleasure of reviewing the 13 and 14 cab and chard respectively.  These two below are from the 14 and 15 vintages.  The 2014 and 15 chardonnays are very similar stylistically, while the the 2013 and 14 cabernets exhibit clear vintage contrasts.  Regardless, these remain wines faithful to a certain place, a place worth making a visit to next time you're in the neighborhood.

2015 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Spring Mountain Napa Valley $34
Majestic. High quality chardonnay in the classic California style. Intense tropical flavors with glycerine, heavy cream, and solid oak framing. Unapologetically statuesque, bold, and lingering, yet cleanly pressed and bearing all the hallmarks of quality winemaking; nary a stitch out of place. Can be (and best) enjoyed at cellar temperature to appreciate its full profundity.

2014 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain Napa Valley $52
Oh, lord, the luxurious aromatics coming off this alone are enough to incite instant infatuation. Deep, beckoning black fruit invites more sniffing for those with the patience to not just dive in. The attack, however, sits juxtaposed with its blue-green fruit/vegetable profile and a restraint that is in contrast to the nose. Prominent acidity, combined with its old school cabernet fruit elements suggest longevity. Even after seven hours decanted, drinking this feels like infanticide. Would love to revisit this one in a decade. And then again in another.

Friday, March 2, 2018


Underdogs enjoy a soft spot in my heart.  In the wine world, overlooked varieties and regions are often overlooked because they were once considered and didn't measure up.  But it's in these nooks and crannies where hidden treasure is discovered. The aptly named Aridus Wine Company falls into this category.

Located in Wilcox, Arizona, Aridus is sourcing grapes locally, as well as from growers in new Mexico and California.  These samples were my first introduction to Arizona wines and serve as a welcome reminder that good wine is found everywhere if you are willing explore and keep and open mind.

Tasting notes of four of these wines follow, but a few quick, general remarks. These all share the same thumbprint - a beguiling texture and refreshing restraint in intensity.  They are all also very competently executed.  Whomever is at the helm in the cellar knows what's what.  Finally, they are quite attractively packaged. Any of these wines can hold their own proudly among others from California.  Definitely worth keeping an eye out for.

2016 Aridus Malvasia Bianca $36
Truth be told, malvasia isn’t my thing, but I know a well-made wine, whether it's in my wheelhouse or not. Riesling sophisticates will swoon over the petrol-dimensioned layers and cracking acidity, but all will marvel over the insane floral aspects and supple texture that dresses the round body.
2016 Aridus Rose of Mourvedre and Grenache Arizona $29
Very unusual. Iridescent color that belies it’s profile. Don’t let the delicate, translucent nose fool you. Vigorous energy awaits on the palate, which bursts with bright, full fruit that channels rich watermelon more than vinifera. And there’s that texture again, somehow creamy and supple. 

2015 Aridus Tempranillo Arizona $40
Beautiful translucent ruby color leads into a slender figure singing in baritone. Clean and direct with its polished fruit, but snugly-framed by a gently smoke-wrapped cedar cola pashmina and sweet Saharan spice. Very easy drinking and amazingly under 13% abv. Bravo.

2015 Aridus Malbec Arizona $36
What a pleasant surprise! Mercifully lacking the brutish and clumsy density of many South American renditions of this grape, this malbec is soft and supple, and much lighter in weight. It positively oozes friendliness with a long, long finish covered in toasty flavors that kiss but don’t cloy. Arizona? Really?  Fantastic.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Oh, Val...You Are Wonderful

Val.  Valpo.  Valpolicella.  Whatever you want to call her, she doesn't care.  Just call her.  Light and breezy, but not at all lacking in substance and personality, Valpolicella lives life in the shadows of her more popular (and expensive) siblings: ripasso and amarone.  But being overlooked means Val is more available, more affordable, and, frankly, more fun.  At 12.5%, this 2016 Mazzi Valpolicella Classico ($12) is light enough to gulp, but packs enough acidity and delicious goodness to bring a smile to the end of even the roughest of days.  Like its northern cousin schiava, Valpolicella is fleet-footed, often liltingly aromatic, and just damned easy to get along with.

As we look ahead to spring and the change of seasonal cuisines, consider experimenting with Val.

Monday, February 12, 2018

FEL Chardonnay: Masculine Brawn, Feminine Poise

2016 FEL Chardonnay Anderson Valley $32
From the founder of namesake winery Cliff Lede comes this second label homage to his grandmother, Florence Elsie Lede (hence, FEL.)  In a nutshell: elegant packaging, voluptuous nose, and a palate full of contrasts. The nose is classic, statuesque California Chardonnay; big and broad shouldered, with warm hi-toned notes that leads into a mouth that is decidedly different- refined and expressive of leaner fruit character without being timid or losing an ounce of its ambition and elegance. Striking acidity shines through unencumbered by oak or malo.  An easy wine for committed Cali chard lovers, but also one with enough bridging to entice Burgundy fans to come in for a closer look at what’s possible in the Anderson Valley.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Markus Wines: Lodi Like You've Never Had

Lodi, is an AVA in California sitting east of San Francisco bay and southeast of Sacramento.  LoCa, as it's sometimes known, has been earning itself a reputation for growing ballsy zin at affordable (by west coast standards) prices.  It has increasingly become sourcing grounds for such value players as Bogle, Cline, Michael David, and others, but value is not the whole play there, as the Lodi Native project proved.

Still, it's a curious effort indeed that Markus Niggli, native of Switzerland and the man behind Borra Vineyards, has released a line of reds only one of which is zin-based.  What's he doing?  Taking a whack at the LoCa mold is my guess.  Unencumbered by a stifling regional rule book, Markus uses a free hand in blending to create age-worthy wines featuring acidity.  That's right, longevity and food-friendliness as priorities is a rare thing indeed - especially in these parts.  Such a different approach accompanied by deft winemaking skills is refreshing.

Though one of sample bottles received was corked (review forthcoming), others proved the importance of suspending judgement.  Though on the pricey side for this area, these are unique, well-made wines worth seeking out.

2015 Markus Syrah 'Zeitlos' Lodi $39 
Beautiful translucent in the glass. The nose points toward deeply-flavored fruit framed by mystery and intrigue. But the mouth provides tension in juxtaposition. The syrah is savory and succulent, made even more alluring thanks to the accompanying viognier, carignan, and petite. Wines that manage to straddle the sweet/savory make it hard to resist coming back for sip after sip after sip, and this is one of them. Bravo!  (76% Syrah, 12% Carignane, 8% Petite Sirah, 4% Viognier)
2015 Markus 'Sol' Red Wine Lodi $39 
Stridently defined by sturdy oak framing and filled in with polished black fruit. Big and angular thanks to the dominant petite sirah, it’s also gushing with finely textured gritty tannins that will appeal broadly. Hard to conceive that this is from Lodi, that’s how well-structured it is. (42% Petite Sirah, 37% Syrah, 21% Mourvèdre)
2015 Markus Zinfandel 'Blue' Lodi $39 
Bright zinfandel fruit pops with energy in this deeply-scented and high-toned, swashbuckling beast. Lots of heft and octane delivered in a surprisingly lithe body. Polished and well made. Oh, and the finish? Like a country mile: dust, languid, and enjoyable - as long as you’re not behind the wheel. Whoa!  16.5% ABV (90% Zinfandel, 5% Petit Verdot, 5% Petite Sirah)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

2017: Winners and Losers

Happy New Year!  Like every year, 2017 was a year of ups and downs in the wine world.  Here's my personal take on the winners and losers, many of which serve as cautionary notes of what to avoid, as well as where exploration is likely to be rewarded.

Let's get the bad news out of the way first.

California wine
As Eric Asimov of the New York Times aptly put it, "Few things have been as damaging to the American wine industry as its homogenization."  And it's not homogenization in the direction of uniform quality.  Case in point is Belle Glos' 2016 Clark & Telephone bottling, a chocolate cola masquerading as pinot noir (and last seen at the grocery store with a price tag of $63!)  Unrecognizable as wine, let alone pinot noir that came from a plant, it is emblematic of the abandonment of character in California wine.  This trend of uniformity has been growing the last couple of years, but appears to really be accelerating now.  There are still some winemakers out there making unique wines that reflect place and personality, but they are fewer and further between than ever, making experimentation a more expensive hit and (mostly) miss endeavor.  Such a shame and a primary reason why I drink so little domestic wine anymore. 

Australian Wines
Still languishing in the long hangover from the Yellow Tail malaise (the effect of the ubiquity of that brand on the general public's perception that all Australian wines should cost eight dollars or less), Australian wine continues to suffer through an identify crisis.  The quality of their everyday wines isn't helping matters, either.  Recent exploration with half a glass of the 2015 Torbreck Woodcutter's Shiraz ($17) proved to be half a glass too much - simply undrinkable and the first wine I've dumped in a long time.  I described the same wine from the 2007 vintage as "Massive, dense, and exciting.  While not quite complex, it is faithfully Syrah and made to be heady." This country has so much potential that has been realized in years past, but appears to have taken a very wrong turn.

Internet Consumers
Wholesalers are flexing their muscles through their lobbying associations and cracking down on interstate wine shipments.  Several states have already issued cease-and-desists to major wine e-commerce retailers and are instituting carrier reporting to track wine, beer and spirits shipments from out of state.  Beginning this year UPS and FedEx will be required to report shipments from wineries and retailers.  Just think about that for a second.  Privacy rights?  The Constitution's Commerce Clause?  Enforcement?  You can bet this will fuel a new wave of lawsuits, but it will take a while for those to materialize and work their way through the system.  In the meantime, expect to feel the effects of this as initiatives go into effect in many states.

Fire Victims
Fires last October in northern California's wine country ravaged countless acres, buildings, and lives, yet most of the questions I've fielded on the subject have been about the impact to wineries.  With the exception of the couple of dozen production facilities that were among the approximately 10,000 structures lost to these fires, wineries are going to be fine.  Harvest was almost completely over with by the time the smoke got thick and, because vineyards are resilient and don't really burn very well, my guess is that the vineyards - and the industry more broadly - will be fully back online this spring.  However, thousands of homes have been destroyed, their occupants uprooted, and lives changed forever.  Let's not forget them (United Ways’ Northern California Wildfire Relief and Recovery Fund.)

Grapes and Alcohol
Still think climate change isn't real?  Then you haven't talked to a farmer - or looked at alcohol levels in wine lately.  Here's the skinny: Grapes need two kinds of ripeness to be ready for picking: sugar ripeness, measured by brix, and phenolic ripeness, which is a function of acid, pH levels, color, and other factors.  In an ideal world (i.e. climates suited for viticulture), grapes achieve both ripeness types at the same time.  But when your growing season is hotter than usual and without important pronounced diurnal temperature swings, sugar ripeness happens before phenolic ripeness. You can't make (good) wine without solid representation on both sides, so while growers are waiting for phenols to develop, brix increase.  The more sugar you have, the higher the alcohol content.

There's a six pack of California samples waiting for my attention all of which are north of 15.5% and a few of which are 16%+.  After you get north of 14.5% ABV (and sometimes even less), there's no escaping the scorching effects of the booze.

With that behind us, let's look at what there is to celebrate and look forward to in wine!

South African Whites
No, that's not the name of a politically incorrect Cape Town punk band, but it is a category I'm pretty excited about these days.  Reasonably priced and full of exciting flavors, if there seems to be a consistent theme that keeps me coming back, it's texture.  Whether it's the Babylon's Peak chenin blanc, or either of the sauvignon blancs from Bayten and Te Mata, the supple feel of these wines is as entrancing as their sophisticated laying of flavors.  Huge bang for buck here and low risk for those with an appetite for experimentation.

Southern France Reds 
There's been a lot of hype over the last couple of years for the 2014 and 2015 vintages - and, for once, it's well-deserved, though, interestingly, some of the best French wine I've had this year is from 2013.  Regardless, I have yet to hit on a dud from Cote du Rhone, Roussilon, or Languedoc in a while.  What's more is that a boatload of drinking pleasure - even wines with serious guts - can be had easily in the under $15 range!  Faves to keep an eye out for: Cabirau, Boisset, and Ferraton to name a few.

Washington Reds
While shopping for California reds is riskier than ever, its rival to the (way) north continues to produce powerful and refined cabs, merlots, and syrahs at (mostly) reasonable prices.  Sure, you can get really high end wines from producers like Cayuse, Andrew Will, and others, but there are a number of wineries pumping out elegant, potent knife-and-fork reds that drink at triple their price.  Look for 2014 Wines of Substance Cabernet Columbia Valley at $17, almost anything by Mercer, but the 2014 Mercer Canyons Cabernet Horse Heaven Hills is an amazing, age worthy steal at $15.

Sure, Brunellos get all the press, but they are out of reach for most of us.  Thankfully, there's plenty of ordinary rosso juice from the area.  So, how is Rosso di Montalcino like Brunello? Same grape variety, same region, less barrel time, and (a lot) less money.  I've been lucky enough to hit on a string of incredibly pure, honest rossos this year including ones from Domus Vitae and Valerio. Ranging in price from $15-$25, these are a little pricier than my definition of value wines, but still represent a good buy and a great experience.  Food is a must, though, for these wines to truly come alive.

Close Outs
Consolidation in the wholesale tier continues and with that comes portfolio clean outs.  Smaller producers and importers have a harder time competing to have their voices heard (and products represented) in a marketplace increasingly dominated by huge powerhouse wine companies.  While this does not bode well for consumers in the long term, wines made by the little guys who are getting squeezed out of markets often end up in the close out bin at significant (30-50%) discount.  It's also the last we might see of those wines, so when your local retailer showcases a closeout wine, give it a try - I've found some real gems/steals by taking a flyer on these wines.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Banshee Pinot Noir: One To Be Thankful For

2015 Banshee Pinot Noir Sonoma County $22
Faithfully true to its roots, this full-flavored, medium-full-bodied Pinot exudes delicious fruit and admirable acidity while sporting very moderate alcohol (13.6%). All this for (way) under $30?  Unheard of.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Suggestions For Thanksgiving

If there is any mention of the holiday at all on these pages, it’s to remind people to not overthink the beverage choice so that there’s plenty of mind space free to exercise gratitude.  In addition to reiterating that sentiment this year, here are a few less ethereal recommendations.

First, Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday, so keep your beverages domestic. Beaujolais nouveau maybe the most heavily marketed wine this time of the year (heck, ever), but there are a million better options from right here in the good old US of A. Enjoy them. 

Next, take that guidance down to the next level of granularity and make sure at least one bottle on your table is local to the region you are celebrating Thanksgiving in. Wine, good wine even, is made everywhere. Open yourself to being surprised while supporting someone sitting at a dining room dinner table not too far away from yours. 

Third, keep it frugal. That doesn’t mean you should buy cheap stuff, it means don’t spend a lot. So much wine priced at $15 a bottle is better than a lot of the stuff priced at over $30 a bottle. Explore, be curious, and be bountiful in your selections along with your gratitude. 

Also, unless it is a subject matter that brings everyone at the table great joy, don’t belabor the wine. Rest assured that it will do it’s job as a social lubricant and accompaniment to the meal whether you fawn on it or not. Instead, perhaps consider lavishing a compliment on someone for their qualities rather than their accomplishments.

Finally, celebrate this holiday in peace and safety. Enjoy, laugh, eat, and rub your belly. We are a lucky bunch all of us. This week is set aside for pausing and realizing that.  


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

What's In Your Cellar?

The other night some of our favorite neighbors stopped over for an impromptu pre-dinner drink. Suggesting their preference for red wine, I invited the husband to the basement to peruse options in our makeshift cellar (a not so glorified closet that used to house half empty cans of paint). When asked if there was anything in particular they like, his unsurprising response was, “California?”

It didn’t occur to me until much later how different the selection is down there than it was even just five years ago. As it turned out that night, we only had a couple of bottles of California red to choose from. Not that ours is a particularly large selection, but that definitely wasn’t the case (pardon the pun) for most of my wine drinking years. 

So, (for the voyeuristically inclined) what is down there? More to the point, why?   Because it is loosely organized by region, and easiest to see which shelves have the most bottles, the following are arranged more or less by decreasing quantity:

Without a doubt, the bottles we have the most of are also the ones that have been down there the longest. Ironically, while these wines are perhaps the most loved, they are the ones I have the least opportunity to enjoy. Mostly vintage ports dating back to the mid 1980s, there are also a few oddballs, like a 93 Hungarian Tokaji, an Australian Muscat, and a couple of mediocre bottles of mid-90s Sauternes.  Few wines are as rewarding - and forgiving - when aged.  I look forward to enjoying these over the coming decades.

Next, it’s probably a tie between France and Italy. The French wines are more or less evenly split between Bordeaux and Rhône/southern France. The longevity of Bordeaux makes it easy to hold onto bottles and revisit them over the years. The freshness and energy (not to mention price tags!) of the southern French wines make them irresistible for the short term, particularly given the back to back fantastic vantages of 2014/15. More than any other region, the Rhône Valley is my go to source these days.

The Italian bottlings are, by number, focused on Piedmont. Nothing outrageous here, just some Nebbiolos, Barbarescos, and a few Barolos waiting for the right time. The others are a random smattering of Montalcinos, Sangioveses, and other blends. As we head into colder months and menus change toward more braised and savory foods, the acidity of these Italian wines are very much prized at our dinner table.

Noticeably absent is Spain.  There are a couple of old school Riojas biding their time, but the overpowering oak regimen currently in vogue on the Iberian peninsula is off-putting to me.  Which is too bad. 

All but forgotten and sitting in a corner collecting dust is an unopened case of Columbia Crest Gold, a big cabernet franc-based blend that packs a wallop, but will be a magnificent wine in a few more years. At $8.99, I could not help myself from stocking up on this perennial favorite.  I've also got a half case of a California cabernet that I regret buying - it serves as a reminder to enjoy a wine at least twice before stocking up.

That's it for the US?  Pretty much.  What does that tell you about my preferences for domestic wines these days?  They're too much, that's what.

There’s a separate shelf for whites randomly filled with some French burgundy bargains, a few South African selections, and one or two bright Italian varieties.   There are a few other odds and ends here and there, including a vertical of Ridge Syrah Lytton Estate running from 1997 to 2002. Why I am still holding onto these I do not know as they are likely well past their prime now. A few bottles of bubbly that have been hanging around waiting for an occasion are getting dustier every month.

I am proud to say that with very few exceptions (such as the ports) the ceiling on what I paid for these wines is $20.  What does your cellar look like?