Friday, October 2, 2015

Washington State - Part I

In a recent post on these pages, I detailed the experience of having attended a trade tasting a couple of months ago. The shoulder seasons are the perfect time for distributors to host these events in preparation for the busy holiday season. As mentioned before, trade tastings are a terrific opportunity for wholesalers and producers to showcase new products coming to market, as well as for people in the retail/restaurant tier to taste a lot of wine and meet the people behind them - all in an efficient afternoon.

I will have the good fortune of attending another trade event this weekend, with an added bonus: the tasting will be accompanied by seminars on Washington state and the Mendoza region of Argentina. The seminars will be conducted by Master Sommelier Matt Citriglia. Very few people have met Master Sommeliers because there are so few of them (fewer than 150 in North America). Having met a few myself, I can attest that these people possess an appealing combination of humility and encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of wine from history to economics to vinification and, of course, analysis.  So, this will be a treat.

So as not to walk into the seminar completely green, I did a little research on the underpinnings of this important winegrowing region. Even if the climate is not cool enough for certain varieties, I have a long theorized that Washington state offers both quality and value vastly superior to much of California. I've also maintained that the Columbia Valley will be the epicenter for merlot's redemption. While this maligned variety has fallen out of favor since Sideways came out (11 years ago!), it continues to be crafted to excellent results here.

So, is there anything unique about Washington? As it turns out, absolutely:
  • First, when talking about winegrowing, the Columbia Valley is almost synonymous with Washington state as it covers about 25% of the state's landmass and encompasses most of Washington's 13 sub AVA's.
  • With an incredibly arid and temperate climate (getting only 8 inches of rain per year) the Columbia Valley's high desert climate is inhospitable to vine diseases. The soil, predominantly fast-draining sandy loam, is ideal for vinifera. This dryness makes the region dependent on irrigation, but has the enormous Columbia River to draw from
  • With ideal soil, so little summertime precipitation, and the absence of disease, much of the Columbia Valley is essentially the perfect winegrowing laboratory. Winemakers can control exactly how much water the vines get, and when they get it, translating to terrific consistency from vintage to vintage - something I appreciate when reaching for a Columbia Valley bottling.
  • Sitting mostly north of the 46th parallel (think Montana), the longest days of summer will see up to 17 hours of daylight and a 40° diurnal variation in temperature. These long, warm days allow fruit to fully ripen, while the cold nights help to concentrate acidity in grape berries. 
  • Land is far cheaper here than it is in the chic winegrowing areas of Northern California, translating to less expensive one. Who doesn't love that?
  • But the secret is out - there are now over 850 wineries in the state.
  • Though riesling gave Washington state it's first real notoriety, winegrowers here have zeroed-in on red varieties - cabernet, merlot, and syrah - as excelling in this climate. Today red varieties make up more plantings and production than white.
  • One criticism that has befallen Washington is that it does not specialize in any particular variety the way, for example, the Willamette Valley specializes in pinot noir. This is a ridiculous criticism that translates to persistent values in the marketplace for the educated consumer. 
I intend to become more educated about this region in hopes of bringing more light to those values. Stay tuned for part two nest week.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

VRBO vs Airbnb: A Cautionary Tale

While this site is primarily dedicated to wine commentary, reviews, and business, many of its readers invest heavily in traveling to winegrowing regions around the world. These regions are, unsurprisingly, almost exclusively rural farming areas with little industry, and lodging made up primarily of small, family-owned B&B's and expensive boutique hotels. With the proliferation of the sharing economy, many new options in lodging have become available through short-term rental sites such as VRBO and Airbnb. This is very much to the benefit of both property owners and travelers as the spectrum of accommodation options has increased dramatically in just the last five years.  This has made wine country destinations the world over that much more accessible.
Airbnb property (and young pinot noir vines) in the Edna Valley rented by the author.
If you haven't taken advantage of this tremendously positive development yet, I encourage you to. That said, it's worth understanding the difference between these two 800 pound gorilla's on the Internet. 

VRBO (now part of the HomeAway family of companies) was first to dominate the vacation rental space on the internet many years ago.  Founded in 1995, it has been the mainstay advertising outlet for vacation property owners around the world. Rival upstart Airbnb, by contrast, was founded in 2008 and not only allows the listing of exquisite mansions in the hottest of places, but also allows travelers to rent a room (or bed or couch) in someone's home or apartment. This provides a much broader and diverse spectrum of both accommodations, travelers, and, no doubt, experiences (not all positive) as has been widely reported in the media recently.

The two companies also differ in a very significant way to travelers: how payments are processed. VRBO generates revenue by charging annual subscriptions or taking a 10% cut of rentals and provides its advertisers the option to accept credit card payments from travelers. This is not mandatory, however, and payment terms are ultimately up to the property owner.

By contrast, Airbnb charges renters a fee to take a reservation and processes all payments through its website accepting credit cards, PayPal, other secure methods. When a traveler makes a reservation, they pay for it at that time. Airbnb essentially escrows that money until the second day of the traveler's stay. This gives travelers and property owners a level of security to be sure that both the property and the traveler are as advertised.

The primary delta between these two approaches is that Airbnb acts as the trusted third-party to hold funds while a reservation and secured, whereas VRBO basically facilitates the transaction to occur between the traveler in the property owner. Now, there is also another detail worth drawing into focus and which is the crux of the cautionary tale here: bank wire payments.

When payment is made by bank wire, it is an irreversible one-way transaction with very limited visibility to the actual recipient of the funds. Obviously, this carries with it tremendous risk as you will see in the following tale. 

After filtering through literally hundreds of different lodging options for an upcoming trip overseas, I reached out to the property owner of a place (with 43 very positive and detailed reviews) listed on VRBO through the website. I heard back from the property owner in short order and began a lengthy email exchange. My varied and detailed questions were answered thoughtfully and professionally, and a rental agreement was sent to me with an offer for a 15% discount if payment was made in full upfront. (Standard terms for this property are 50% at reservation time and the balance within 30 days of arrival.) 15% is not an incredibly large discount, but when considering a week-long stay, it adds up quickly and was, therefore, tempting enough to accept.  So,

I printed off the rental agreement and shot an email to my bank to get the process of the wire transfer rolling. Reviewing the specific language of the rental agreement, a few peculiar things stood out: in the section that describes the renters insurance coverage, there were several grammatical errors. Since this was an overseas listing, I wrote that off to a language translation issue. There was also the matter of the wire transfer going to a bank in Poland (the property is in Italy). Part of the European Union, Poland is just another country in that free market zone, so I wrote that off, too. To be on the safe side, I reviewed VRBO's security recommendations, which states that renters should contact the property owner by telephone prior to sending money via bank wire.  So,I emailed the property owner asking if I could contact them by telephone, but they told me they could not speak due to having had recent tracheotomy surgery.  Strike three.  This I could not overlook.

I then contacted VRBO's customer service team to determine whether I was dealing with a legitimate person or not. While VRBO is based in Austin, I suspect my phone call was routed to someone at a call center in India. Citing privacy concerns, they would not confirm whether the email address I have been corresponding with belonged to the property lister or not. They were of absolutely no help, and, apparently, did not even send any sort of security warning to the property owner.

Finally, after a number of tries, I dialed the number listed on the property listing and eventually connected with the property owner - a very nice, if initially confused, woman whose English is far better than my Italian. She was shocked to hear that I almost wired money to a someone in Poland. It was clear that her account had been hacked. 

In retelling the story to a handful of people, I have learned that VRBO listings getting hacked is not altogether uncommon.

Does this mean that VRBO is a viper pit of fraudsters?  Not at all.  But prospective renters should be aware of the pitfalls and appropriate countermeasures to prevent from getting duped.  I'm thanking my lucky stars the conspiracy theorist in me was reviewing the paperwork.  Had I not carefully read the rental contract, we would have been out a lot of money - and a place to stay on arriving at our destination.  You don't want to be that person.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Recycle Bin, Week of Sept 21

We have a decent backlog of reviews for you this week, including a smoking deal on a French sauvignon blanc, a cautionary tale on vintage variation, and reminder of why we should all be drinking more Italian wines.  Cheers!

2014 Casillero del Diablo Cabernet $10
A far cry from the 2012 reviewed back in June. Noticeably less refined with a strong bite on the finish. I cannot recommend this one at all. Note: if you see the 2012, grab it!

2012 Montevina Barbera Amador County $11
A rich, inviting nose beckons. Soft, supple Texter serves as the platform for Rich, balanced fruit with a notable dusty element on the midpalate. Soft, round, and accessible, this is an easy one to reach for, particularly at the price.

2013 Caves des Perrieres Pouilly Fume $10
A nearly electric nose gives way to an equally energetic attack of grassy, Granny Smith fruit. As honest and straightforward as this wine is, it also has real grip, acidic framing, minerality in torpedoes, and palpable tension. Quite a lot for $10!  I only wish I had discovered this at the beginning of the summer. Purchased at Trader Joe's.

2010 Filomusi Guelli Montepulciano d'Abruzzo $14
It used to be that Montepulciano was almost exclusively bottled in 1.5L bottles, stocked on the bottom shelves at grocery stores, and rarely exceeded $7 (for the big bottles).  Today, there are many examples of terrific wines being made from this grape and this is yet another.  Easy-going, round, and soft on the tannins, this is a versatile wine for any night of the week.  As a sobriety test: try saying this wine's name three times.

2012 Schild Estate Grenache Mourvedre Syrah Barossa Valley $15
A carbon copy of the 2011 vintage - rambunctious, volatile, attention-commanding, and magnetic.  Lighter bodied, but positively enormous flavor, the juxtaposition adds to its allure.  Can't get enough of this wine.

2013 Ramsay Estate Pinot Noir North Coast $17
A smooth and nuanced pinot.  Such a welcome surprise.

2010 Confidencial Tinto Reserva Lisboa (Portugal) $12
Very friendly fruit with enough structure to keep it interesting and enough acidity to make it a terrific accompaniment to hearty fare.  Thankfully missing the blockish, teeth-hurting tannins that many inexpensive Portuguese wines have.  The only tacky part of it is the sticker on it reading "92 points".

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Fires in California: What You Can Expect

Unless you've been living in a cave, by now you know that there are several fires raging across northern California and the Pacific Northwest. These are very serious, large fires, encompassing huge swaths of land and challenging firefighters by the thousands. The loss of both natural resources and property has already been very significant. Lives have been altered in irreversible ways and the true tally will not be computed for many weeks or months to come.

This is not the first time natural catastrophes have ravaged our primary domestic growing regions.  In most recent memory, the earthquake that rattled Napa Valley last year comes to mind. There was also the widespread fires that impacted much of Mendocino County several years ago. And there are other events going further back for those wanting to take a grim walk down memory lane.

But as resilient people do, many in the wine industry are looking ahead. For some, harvest is already upon them, plans accelerated by the fires, no doubt.

What does this mean for the wine consumer? A few thoughts on short, mid, and long-term impact:

In the near term you can expect a very interesting mix of messaging coming from winegrowing and winemaking associations. On the one hand will be a reassuring message that all is well, grapes have been salvaged, and 2015 promises to be, yet again, the vintage of the decade. Perhaps that's a little overboard, but the public relations machine is already well past ignition, attempting to reassure the consuming public that they should not alter their allegiances (buying habits) due to the fires. At the same time, petitions are already in the works for  assistance for those personally impacted by the disaster. This is both understandable and necessary, if at odds with the prior reassurance.  How can the fires be so bad that households smack in the middle of wine country have been decimated without extraordinary impact to the grapes in the area?  This is either conveniently optimistic or deliberately ignorant. Here's why:

When temperatures reach a raging flame point in natural settings, combustion of any flammable substance is often explosive. Depending on what the material is, different types of residue will be vaporized and set a loft into the winds. If we think about burning yard waste - dried grass, for example - we know that it can smoke a lot and smell for a short bit. But when we consider that much of the vegetation surrounding wine country is either conifer, succulent, or deciduous, these trees or shrubs tend to have very oily sap. Different varieties of pine, eucalyptus, and other heavy aromatic brush, when burnt, will emit smoke heavy with these oils and tar. Much in the same way as a crude oil spill coats rocks, beaches, and wildlife, there is no escaping this insidious and cloaking smoke. Anything even remotely in the path of the prevailing winds will be tainted.  Such was the fate of Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley in 2008: more Cohiba than cool climate.

In the midterm, most particularly at the end of this year and into next year as recaps of this vintage echo, a refined downplay evolution of the message starting to go out now will emerge: 2015 is a unique vintage that offers unprecedented character.  Spin city.

Finally, the long term will remain less certain until the net impact to wines becomes pale in the light of day.  At that point - if there is any damage to juice at all - winemakers will be forced to make harsh, if creative, decisions. Will they dare put smoke-laden juice into expensive barrels at the risk of long-term damage? Will they invest the operational resources to even make wine if it is undeniably flawed? Conversely, will they make lemonade out of lemons by seizing the opportunity to branch out and issue one-time-only bottlings of wines that go well with heavily grilled poultry, Pittsburgh steaks, and maduro cigars?

At the end of the day, every savvy consumer should be comforted by the knowledge that there are dozens of other winegrowing regions around the world that, in 2015, experienced little more than a hiccup. Which is consolation indeed in light of what families are suffering through right now across the west and northwest. Let's all keep them in our thoughts as we raise a glass for their safe passage. And if you're feeling charitable, perhaps you'll consider making a donation to the Red Cross, which is participating in the relief effort.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Napa Green

While the phrase "Napa Green" might easily be mistaken as the name for a new hillside-grown cannabis hybrid, it's actually an environmental certification program for vineyards and wineries in the Napa Valley.  Though rarely a thought while enjoying a glass of wine, both farming grapes and making wine can have a significant impact on the surrounding ecosystem.  Whether that impact is positive or negative has to do with how those tasks are carried out.

Designed to to protect and enhance the region while promoting environmentally-sound best practices, Napa Green's methods reduce energy and water use, waste, and pollution.  With close to 65,000 acres certified "Napa Green", this voluntary program is helping preserve and restore the area's ecological quality.

Does this impact the way the wine tastes?  At an empirical level it's impossible to tell, but the two wines sent as examples from participating wineries speak with honesty and clarity, unencumbered by interference or the noise of manipulation.  And the zin, which is easily the most elegant I've had the pleasure of drinking in a decade or more, is worthy of pursuit. 
2012 Frank Family Vineyards Zinfandel Napa Valley $37
From this highly dependable vineyard better known for its cabernet comes a zinfandel the likes of which I have not had in several years. Very, very well made. Whereas most contemporary zinfandels are lopsided and bombastic with clumsy fruit and high alcohol, this wine is at once tight and accessible. Refined and elegant, its fruit unfolds delicately around a structure that echoes deliberate intent and careful execution. Highly recommended. 
2013 Gamble Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Yountville $20
In a market where producers seem to be in a never ending race for differentiation (particularly using sauvignon blanc to lead the convoy) this one strives - and succeeds - at sticking to the script. Neither dull nor spastically exuberant, its fidelity to classic Napa SB flavors of fresh cut grass and green apple peel is as true as its subdued 'I've got nothing to prove' delivery. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Only Wine You Need This Labor Day

2013 Columbia Crest Gold Limited Release (70% cab franc/30% merlot) $10
If you are one of the few long time readers of this site, you probably remember repeated mentions of the 2008 Columbia Crest Amitage red blend - the $8 powerhouse of a wine that seduced with its terrific structure and beckoned many happy returns thanks to its affordable price.  At seven years old, it's just hitting its stride. Even though I scooped up two cases of that bottling, there's only one bottle left in the cellar (a testament to my enthusiasm - and lack of patience). 

As has been remarked on these pages before, I would gladly pay double and then some for another bottle of that stuff. Thankfully, today's discovery makes that unnecessary. 

Much like the 2008 Amitage, this wine suffers from terribly unfortunate packaging. Now common across all labels in the Columbia Crest family, this particularly egregious label-fashion faux pas does anything but encourage customers.  Seriously, who is coming up with these color schemes?

To the degree that the silly packaging is deterring others, I thank those ham-fisted designers for helping shelve what would otherwise be snatched up in short order. 

On opening, it is taut and robust enough to stand up to heavily sauce led barbecue food thanks to real tannic backbone. But as it unwinds, the layers unfold and, given enough time, in the same way that an old, pilled, wool sweater provides comfort and softness, this does, too. Lush, rich, and perhaps a little simple for highbrow tastes, it is awfully easy to cozy up to.

Now it is your turn. But do not hesitate. The $10, this Cabernet Franc-based wine is a treat that will cut through  almost any preference profile.  Enjoy and have a safe holiday weekend!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Recycle Bin, Week of Aug 31

This week we've got two $8 wonders, some surprising let downs, one surprising bargain (surprising because WA gave it 90 points and it's actually quite pleasant), and a couple of off-the-beaten-path finds.

2012 Bogle Phantom $20
A perennial favorite for its grip and vigor, this year's release has so much heat as to be distracting.  It's also lacking those trademark Phantom characteristics that this bottling is so loved for.  Attention-commanding, for sure, but a let down.

2012 Penfolds Shiraz-Cabernet South Australia Bin 8 $20
Blunt force trauma to the roof of your mouth with a hardened steel bar.  Obtuse and stoic.  Really tough to find the fruit here.  Even harder to warm up to.

2013 Esporao 'Pe Tinto' Red Portugal $8
Fresh, clean, and eminently quaffable, this country red is enjoyable for its simplicity and honesty.  Not trying to be anything it's not and a nice price, too.

2013 Mariscal Garnacha Valencia (Spain) 'El Miracle' $8
Old world, medium-bodied grenache.  Both fruit and rusticity here thanks to the absence of what has become the typical Spanish over-oaking.

2013 SLO Down Wines Chardonnay California 'Broken Dreams' $17
Unlike 99% of California chardonnays out there, this one did not go through malolactic fermentation or see any oak.  Rather than translating to a reserved, modest wine, the result is an extroverted, plump mouthful of unadulterated chardonnay fruit with a luxurious texture.

2009 La Tanuta Brunello di Montalcino $40
Every now and again you've got to splurge.  This bottle turned heads more for its refinement than any truly exciting attributes.  Next time I'll reach for Barolo.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Vanguard Trade Tasting

Trade tastings are a funny thing. An opportunity for wholesalers to showcase the large number of wines to a combined audience of their customers all at once, it's sort of like speed dating with wines, and with the same frantic, intense pace.  For this reasons I think it's wise to wait a few weeks before reflecting on any impressions.  That way the novelty of the event itself will have subsided and, if you're still thinking about a wine you tasted in a busy, cluttered crowd a few weeks later, chances are it's a good match.

A few weeks ago Vanguard Distribution hosted their annual trade tasting for retailers and restaurateurs.  Wholesalers typically buy from larger suppliers and importers, but Vanguard has cut out the middleman and buys direct from producers.  This means that most of the tables at the tasting are manned by the winery owner or winemaker themselves, rather than a proxy representative.

Despite the romantic notion of getting closer to the source, a tasting of this size with dozens of producer tables (70+) and hundreds of attendees, feels more machine than any sort of dignified sampling.  Overall impressions? Vanguard has a well-rounded book, with good representation from California and Europe alike, as well as a few South American producers, too. Without question the entire portfolio skews towards the higher end, which means there are very few value priced wines in the mix.  (Deep sigh.)  Other quick thoughts before getting to specifics:
  • Wine isn't getting any cheaper.
  • Relative value is decreasing in California.
  • More and more domestic wines taste alike.
  • Italy remains a strong benchmark for quality and excitement.
Note: I did not take any notes at the tasting, So what follows are wines which stood out for one reason or another well enough to be memorable for at least a few weeks. 

Failla Wines, Sonoma Coast

Highly forward, very refined, and expensive pinot noir and chardonnay.  In your face extravagance. Parker probably loves these wines.

Whitehall Lane Winery, Napa Valley
At some point when all of your reference points are in the highfalutin price range, money starts getting funny. That's how price points like the ones at Whitehall Lane begin to seem quite reasonable. Such is the curse of what Napa Valley has become. That said, from an absolute perspective,these are quite enjoyable wines.
2012 Tre Leoni $27 Super friendly and easy drinking, this full-bodied and lush blend is very approachable, warm, and refined without being arrogant.
2013 Merlot $33 Very elegant and structured. everything it should be and favorite of the wines in this lineup.
2012 Cabernet $44 Textbook Napa Valley Cabernet rounded out by a dollop of spice rack grapes. Toasty oak frames the large, broad sided structure of this anything but shy cab. 

The antithesis to snooty wine culture, winemaker hipster Brandon Allen is as affable and casual as you will find in winemaking. Taking a much more relaxed direction to both sourcing and winemaking, the results are affordable and approachable.  If you have a few minutes and want a good laugh, check out his website.
2013 Broken Dreams Chardonnay $19 Real, unadulterated chardonnay fruit with ample evidence of its fidelity without being encumbered by manipulation, oak, or malolactic fermentation. Easily my favorite Chardonnay from California at this tasting.
2012 Standout Red Blend $23 Solid and structured without being over-the-top in any particular direction. Easy drinking without being flabby. Very likable.

Allamand, Mendoza
Known for its Valle de Uco malbec and cabernet, the real surprise here was the single vineyard
Altamira malbec and the H malbec-cabernet blend. The newer value-priced Luminis line is sourced from lower altitude vineyards in the Lujan de Cuyo - and it shows.  Those wines didn't resonate as much.  These winemakers are super friendly characters.
2013 Altamira Malbec $23 Probably the best malbec I've ever had.  It's high-altitude origin help the reign in what often comes across as harsh tannins.  Refined, poised, and enticing, a good one to buy by the case for you to return again and again like a moth to the flame. 
2012 H $37 Very, very big, but still poised.  Marvelous and massive.

Domaine de Pajot, Gascony
Pouring just one wine - a $10 white - this table seemed like the red-headed step child of the tasting.  One taste, though, made it clear that one wine is all they needed. 
2014 Quatre Cepages Cotes de Gascogne $10 Racy. Tension builds quickly thanks to the acidity and vigor of sauvignon blanc and culminates in a crackling delivery of a fruity bullet where colombard and ugni blanc take center stage.  I'll bet more orders were placed for this wine than at any other table.

Jean-Marc Brocard, Burgundy
At the other end of the budget spectrum is the venerable Chablis producer showcasing an enviable lineup of six different Chablis from as far back as 2000, including Grand Cur and 1er Crus.  Each wine spoke with distinction of its respective vineyard and vintage.  Quality stuff, but expensive.  As cool as it is to try a 15 year old chardonnay from magnum (2000 Vielles Vignes Chablis $80), it was the second to least expensive 2013 Vau de Vey ($36) that stood out most for its promise.

Sodevo/Zuani, Collio
Located as far northeast as you can get in Italy, this vineyard on the Slovenian border offered just
three whites to sample, but was the most exciting single stop of the tasting.  Electric freshness is pervasive through these bottlings.
2013 Sodevo Ribolla Gialla $18 Yay for ribolla!
2013 Zuani Collio Bianco $24 Energetic and fresh with acidity as crisp as a freshly ironed bespoke shirt.
2011 Zuani Riserva Biano $35 Captivating with unfolding dimensions of flavors that echo a pulse-quickening glimpse into the hillsides of northeastern Italy.  Haunting and worth every penny.

Tenuta di Tinoro, Tuscany
This winery came on the scene like a freight train about 8 years ago with a super Tuscan Bordeaux blend called Le Cupole.  I think I paid $15 for my first bottle, but the price grew with its acclaim and will now set you back close to $40.  This kind of meteoric price climb is a turn off, which is only further aggravated two other reds offered at this table: one at $120 and another at $260.

Gianfranco Alessandria, Piedmont
This stalwart producer hails from the bucolic hamlet of Monforte d'Alba where it turns out reliable wines in the standard Piedmontese quiver (dolcetto, barbera, nebbiolo, Barolo) year after year.  The regular (not single vineyard) Barolo is what got my attention at this table, particularly considering it was half the price of the Barolos at the next table over.
2011 Barolo DOCG $50 Inviting, approachable, extroverted, elegant, vibrant, and rewarding.  Terrific stuff.

Elio Altare, Piedmont
Barolo is where it's at with Altare.  As exciting as these wines are (and they most definitely are), the swooning does really kick into gear until you hit the single vineyard Arboina and Cerretta bottlings.  Regrettably, you'll be shelling out $95-120 a bottle for these wines at retail.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Recycle Bin, Week of Aug 3

2014 Butter Chardonnay California $20
Straw gold in the glass with a pretty nose that sits (in stark contrast) atop a palate that is not for the meek. Large, plump, and decidedly lopsided to feature its rotund profile, the composition of this wine is more a function of echoing malolactic fermentation than the Chardonnay grape. While certainly not for everyone, this exaggerated wine will find plenty of fans who deliberately seek out its overt characteristics, my wife inclusive. 

2013 Truchard Pinot Noir Carmeros $25
The measure of a Pinot Noir is how well it straddles the domains of fruit and terroir. Too much of one or the other, and it is either to lean or two bloated. The Truchard (the third consecutive vintage I've tasted with  similar impressions) does in fact walk that fine line. Beautiful garnet in the light and an inviting nose that speaks of mystery and intrigue, one hardly needs further encouragement to dive in head first. People not fruit awaits in high fidelity, framed by complex acids and arrange of the spice rack flavors too broad to enumerate. Delicious and tough to put down, if slightly on the hot side.

2012 Wente Cabernet Livermore Balley Southern Hills $15
The textbook straightforward California cabernet. True fruit, medium-sized oak framing, and some decent structure. The kind of wine that, when it cost $10, was a terrific bargain. But even at $15, it is an easy one to enjoy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Embrace The Twist Off?

And then there was this comment from a reader in response to the recent recap on the highjacking of pinot noir:
"I've been known to enjoy a bottle of Meiomi, and I think that it is nice for the price point. My problem, is that I hate the twist off cap, and feel that I am always selling/defending it to my friends for that reason. Convince me that I should embrace the twist off, or otherwise. It certainly loses the romantic quality of the cork popping!"

Thanks for the comment.  Have a seat on the couch. Get comfortable.  Lie down, even.  There you go.  Now, where shall we start?

First, glad you've found a wine that combines an appealing experience at a digestible price point.  Too bad that it comes with so much baggage.  We can come back to why you feel the need to justify your favored wine's closure to your friends in a bit. 

Meanwhile, to the task at hand:  You're in good company.  A lot of people have a hang up with twist-off closures (aka Stelvins).  I'm not sure I can (or should) convince you to embrace Stelvins so much as encourage you to place less value on a wine's closure.  Here's my personal perspective:

I don't care how my wine is secured in bottle, so long as it's tasty when I pour it into a glass.

We drink wine for many reasons, but they all boil down to wine being a romantic elixir and social lubricant...something to accompany meals, celebrations, or simply conversations.  Cork is nowhere in the top 10 reasons we enjoy wine.  Taste? Sensation?  Effect?  Sure.  But when was the last time you heard someone go on and on about the pleasures of pulling a cork  Never.  What matters most is what's in the bottle and who's holding the glasses.

But yours is a concern that can't be ignored: romance, ritual.  Cutting and peeling the foil, working a corkscrew's worm into pliable cork, slowly rotating the key further and further down, convincing the cork upwards as you see-saw the leverage...this, this is all foreplay.  And you just don't get foreplay when you crack off a Stelvin cap.

While the sound of a cork being pulled at the end of a long day elicits a positive response in my household, it is no substitute for the substance of real romance.  Your wife can probably explain that to you better than I can.

So, how can you still get ritual with your screw cap wine?  Easy.  Buy yourself a sexy decanter.  Create your own ritual around the slow pour down the sides of the decanter into a swirling, bubbly puddle of inviting grape nectar.  Decanters are beautiful creatures and way more elegant than a bottle, no matter how pretty the label.  Besides, that Meiomi is going to be a lot better after breathing for a bit anyway.

So, back to defending your wine choices to your friends.  Don't.  They don't care.  Honestly.  And if you do get remarks on screw caps, simply explain that you're turning over a new, environmentally-conscious leaf, saving the cork forests of the world one bottle of wine at a time.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Tale of Two Pinots (Or The Highjacking of a Grape)

I'm going to sound like a sommelier for a minute here, so my apologies in advance for the rant. But something has occurred right under our noses over the last five or so years: the hijacking of the pinot noir grape. If you've been drinking wine long enough, you may recall that pinot noir is that finicky, delicate, and most vulnerable of vinifera. The challenges it presents in the vineyard persist in the cellar where for centuries winemakers have been stymied to extract it's unique greatness. In its rare moments of brilliance, it is truly magnificent. But the vast majority of the time, pinot noir's lack of resilience results in thin, insipid plonk. Well, that used to be the case anyway. 

Modern winemaking styles, in California in particular, lean heavily towards richness, extraction, and, too often, high residual sugar.  The result is that much of today's pinot noir is no longer thin nor insipid, but high-toned and syrupy (but still plonk).

As an example of how pervasive this has become, I opened two very popular current release pinots: the ubiquitous Meiomi from California and Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster.  Both wines cost $20.  I expected cough syrup from the Meiomi, and restraint and bright acidity from the Orgenian contender.  Both surprised.  The Meiomi was large and extracted and dense in ways more commonly attributed to syrah, but it wasn't at all clumsy or flabby, and it actually had some structure.  WVV's bottling, the 2012 vintage of which I appreciated last year (review here), was big, broadcasting Bing cherries through a megaphone with little in the way of acidity or, frankly, prettiness - a complete about face from the 2012.  Both wines, though from vastly different regions, seem to have been designed by the same focus group.

What these wines represent well, though, is a homogenization that seems to know no boundaries.  Our Super Size Me appetites and palates raised on high fructose corn syrup help explain this popular trend.  And pinot noir is not alone in being subjected to this treatment, nor is it isolated to US wines at all.  The "international style" (which is sometimes referred to as the Parkerization of wine, but which could just as aptly be called the Texasization of wine) values largess, density, and swagger over all other qualities.  The result is that fewer and fewer wines speak to us, so much as they yell at us. 

Am I reversing course and taking sides with Rajat Parr's outspoken stance that pinots should be quieter, gentler wines of nuance? No.  Brash wines of substance and weight (even high alcohol) are appealing, so long as those components are delivered in balance. But you can't drink wines like that every day - they're just too much.  Even the heartiest of us needs occasional refuge.

Unfortunately, the popularity of this sub-woofer-driven wine trend is so pervasive that little domestic options remain - at least at the mere mortal end of the price spectrum.  Thankfully, options abound in the Old World.  For reds, look to Italy for schiava, cannonau, even some leaner Chiantis.
For whites, France shines, especially in the Macconaise where the chardonnays will whisper to you if you let them.

Happy drinking!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Recycle Bin, Week of July 13

We've had some magnificent discoveries as well as some terrific disappointments over the last couple of weeks. Savvy shoppers will seek out the dwindling supply of the reds in particular and avoid the overhyped wines. The French red reviewed below serves as a reminder to trust your own palate over that of the experts.  Easiest favorites from this bunch are the Broad-side and the Amancaya.  We'll start with the bad news and move to the good...

2013 Chateau Saint Roch Maury Sec $18
A retailer, whom I like quite a bit, referred to this as a "spectacular wine" and which Parker gave 95 points to. I give it a shoulder shrug. Honestly, how someone can see their way to refer to this ordinary syrah-grenache blend as anything other than slightly above average is beyond me.

NV Chateau de Campuget Costieres de Nimes Blanc $10
Acidic, sharp, and harsh. Almost no fruit to speak of and very little in the way of redeeming qualities.  At least I've got some cooking wine back in stock.

2011 Quinta do Crasto Duoro Branco $16
I should've paid closer attention to the vintage before pulling this off the shelf. Most whites, Portuguese in particular, are meant to be drunk young. At four years old, this one is over the hill. Any vibrance it once had is long gone.  What's left is flat and one dimensional. That won't stop me from trying a newer release of this one, but beware that wholesalers and retailers are peddling old inventory as fast as they can.

2010 Bleasdale The Broad-side (Shiraz/Can/Malbec) Langhorne Creek $15
Speaking of peddling older inventory, here's an example of when that can benefit you.  This intense, brooding, savory red blend packs a lot of interest and drinking enjoyment for the money.  At five years old, I would've expected much of the fruit's vigor to have faded, but this Aussie is holding up beautifully.  Structured and fine-boned, it's got layers upon layers of attention-commanding flavors and acidity.
2012 Domaine Ehrhart Pinot Auxerrois Val St Gregoire Alsace $15
Brimming with fresh, bright fruit, this lovely Alsatian white packs an unexpected level of body and gorgeous sunshine into the bottle.  Auxerrois is rarely bottled on its own, but has consistently rewarded.  This is no exception.
2014 Rutherford Ranches Chardonnay Napa Valley $14
Something of an anomaly. Certainly the first 2014 I've tasted, you can tell it's from California, but it is a restrained version of typical chardonnay. There's actually some minerality and acidity here, gently overlaid overtop the fruit.  Easily enjoyable.

2012 Amancaya Malbec/Cabernet Gran Reserva Mendoza $20
A collaboration between Domain Baron de Rothschild and Nicolas Catena, this elegant and powerful red gives many Napa cabernets a run for their money.   Terrific balance, despite its potency, this wine has plenty of grip and mouth-coating tannins to make it versatile and exceedingly enjoyable.