Monday, April 20, 2015

Recycle Bin, Week of April 20

It's a mixed bag this week - mostly a batch of lackluster and ho-hum wines the mainstream wine press would have you believe are wonderful.  But there's a winner here that serves as a reminder that wine - great wine - is still being made in Australia at a significant discount to much of the remainder of the globe.  Cheers!

2013 Hess Select Chardonnay Monterey County $11
Perfectly serviceable, if lacking in any particularly noteworthy qualities besides its ultimately cloying finish. Safe to drink (one glass) if it's offered to you, but nothing you want to serve to dinner guests you'd like a reciprocal invite from. 

2011 Roth Sauvignon Blanc Alexander Valley $13
A few years of age could be to blame for a harsh bite that starts in the mid-palate it intensifies on the finish. 2011 is a couple of years older than what ought to be on the shelves right now - for Sauv Blanc, anyway.

2012 Rubus Shiraz Barossa $19
Australian wines haven't gotten a bad rap lately as much as they've gotten no rap at all. The Yellow Tail backlash (the effect of the ubiquity of that brand on the general public's perception that all Australian wines should cost eight dollars or less) has cast a long shadow over much of what there is to celebrate about Australian wine. This here is an example of what gets overlooked as a result. Powerful, intense, and with layers of complexity that over deliver at the price point, reaching for this when grilling lamb is a guaranteed success.  If it's been a while since you've had a gob-smacking Syrah, why deny yourself any longer?

2013 Cosentino Winery Cabernet Franc Lodi $13
Hot, brash, and a bit clumsy for a Cabernet Franc. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to Zinfandel from this area and has little, if anything, in common with Cab Franc. Aside from that, it's obviousness and heavy-handed oak treatment will appeal to many who go for that sort of thing.

2012 Vignobles d'Altitude Tessellae Cotes Catalanes $10
Pretty, dense, and fresh in a generic southern France kind of way. All fruit, no structure. Nothing terribly distinctive here other than the price tag.  The Wine Advocate gave this 92 points.  I give it a shoulder shrug.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Recyle Bin, Week of April 13

A recent trip to Florida turned up some pleasant encounters with a handful of wines that are widely available.  Thanks to Florida's wide open market (mildly regulated), these wines were all available at substantial discounts from what are listed below.  That said, savvy shoppers will be smart to buy even at these prices.  Enjoy!

2013 La Crema Chardonnay Sonoma Coast $19
Whereas a lot of large production Chardonnays have decreased in quality (but not in price) with the 2013 vintage, La Crema actually steps up.  There are no surprises in this characteristic California Chard, except that it's well-made, clean, supremely enjoyable, and drinks like a lot of $30 Chards.

2012 Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Alexander Valley $18
Must.  Get.  More.  Soon.  Very accessible and exuding everything that's great about Alexander Valley: rich, ripe Cabernet flavors framed by toasty (but unobtrusive) oak and tannins.  A terrific deal from one of California's most consistent family-owned wineries.  Bravo.

2012 Rodney Strong Cabernet Alexander Valley $22
This was drunk next to the Cab above and, while it brought more intensity to the table, it wasn't quite as open as the AVV.  Still, this powerful wine is one I'd like to revisit in another year or so.

2012 Bogle Pinot Noir California $11
If other Pinot producers asked themselves if their offerings beat the dollar-for-dollar punch of this wine before they priced their own, Pinot Noir would be half the cost.  This is real Pinot Noir that triggers many pleasure points and drinks even better on day two.  Whatever it may lack in nuance and sophistication it more than makes up for in its blockbuster value.

2010 Gabbiano Chianti Classico Riserva $25
Chianti finesse and acidity meets broad-shouldered structure and a firm-handed delivery of unapologetic flavor.  Incredibly versatile - as companionable with a grilled ribeye as it is with a past and fish dish.  Easily the best Chianti I've had in years.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Doldrums of Wine

Now that we're into the second quarter, there's no doubt that 2015 is under way in earnest.  Already we've seen some interesting things in the wine market.  Earlier in the year prices were up, then down again as next vintages in the pipeline want for warehouse and shelf space.  We'll continue to see the wine business' cycles unwind throughout the year, just as we do every year.  And we'll see some quirks as the business as a whole evolves.  

One difference from prior years that is most particularly evident in the domestic sub-$15 segment is a sudden drop in quality in a context of level prices and much-improved source quality. 

You'd think - or like to think, anyway - that what $12 bought you last year would be similar to what it would buy you this year.  But wine is primarily an agricultural product and therefore subject to the whims of weather and the vagaries of handling.  When a poor vintage comes to market, production and marketing costs don't go down simply because the weather didn't cooperate.  So, it's rational to expect that you'll still have to spend what you did prior year to get a lesser product.  (Or look to other regions for your wine.)

Shouldn't then the inverse be true?  As 2012s and 2013s - both good years on the west coast - have come to market, why aren't consumers able to reap the benefits?  It's certainly not for lack of trying, but domestic wines from 2013 in particular are far less interesting and enjoyable than in previous vintages.  What's more is that there are many second bottlings showing up under pricier brand names than ever before.  To wit, William Hill used to bottle estate fruit only from its Napa Valley vineyards.  Solid wines.  Now they have a new line with strikingly similar label, but the fruit is sourced from the Central Coast.  The experience of the latter is in stark contrast to the legacy labels.  Another example is Chateau Souverain, long a mainstay of quality and value in the Alexander Valley, which has added a North Coast line at a price point close to where their outstanding appellation series used to be.  It's a similar let down.

Capitalizing on a combination of brand equity and branding confusion, the quasi bait-and-switch approach doesn't sit well with me at all.  But where is all the good juice going?  Beats me.

What does all of this mean to the savvy consumer?  Though there are exceptions like the one pictured below, you'll have to look beyond your formerly dependable brands and experiment much more in the year ahead.  As evidenced by the lack of frequent updates on these pages of late, my experimentation is in need to broader reach.  As that continues, the postings will continue to be sparse until there's something worth writing home about.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Serious Barolo Bargain!

2004 Barreri e Rovati Barolo Riserva $20
This is an incredible wine. From the lauded 2004 vintage in Piedmont, it's a Barolo - a Riserva, no less. Poised, but aloof in introduction, it's elegance is more than arm's reach alway. As it eases, which it does in a couple of hours, all that's worth celebrating about Barolo is on full display: tight, electric Cashmere tannins with positively soaring phenolics give way to a building shape that commands basso profundo attention without obesity. The lingering, sexy finish seduces again and again. A complete Barolo with 10+ years on it for a quarter the going price for a similar experience. So, incredible, yes. And one you should strongly consider picking up. But if you do, you'll have to visit a Trader Joe's. Because that's the only place you'll find it. Load up! Cheers. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Exciting Wines From Chile

When you think of Chilean wines, chances are that words like "inexpensive" and "Carmenere" come to mind.  But Burgundian varieties in Chile?  Probably not.  Until now.  Leyda Valley, a cool coastal area with granite soils, could be ideally suited for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  And if these two exciting wines are any indication, experimentation in this area will reward the adventuresome.  Both are highly recommended.    

2013 Kalfu Sumpai Pinot Noir Leyda Valley Chile $24 (Sample)
There is a lot to be excited about in this energetic and well-made Pinot. For starters, it is unlike any Pinot your continental palate has become accustomed to.  That said, it is a faithful rendition of the grape from its place. Leyda Valley has demonstrated its versatility in producing a number of different varieties, but seems to stand out in producing quality Pinot Noir at affordable prices. There is a lot happening in this bottle: a steely cleanliness frames a spice rack that is nearly dizzying in its dimensions. Fruit is ample without being overt or overly extracted. Drinking a Pinot Noir as balanced as this is a sincere pleasure and a welcome change of pace from the jammy examples coming from California at similar price points. 

2013 Kalfu Kuda Chardonnay (Unoaked) Leyda Valley Chile $19 (Sample)
If the Pinot Noir was energetic, this is positively electric and gripping. Soft pear and bright citrus greet you in the attack, followed by a full mid-palate, and a long, firm handshake finish.  This clean, direct laser beam drinks as much like a Sauvignon Blanc as a Chardonnay. Brilliant.  Worth the search for an experience you will want to repeat.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

$10 And Under: The Search For Value

In keeping with the value-priced wine theme, this installment probes different corners for high drinkability at low prices.  Last week's free shipping deal (which is actually still good through midnight Sunday, March 15) from the fantastic Marketview Liquor gave ample opportunity for just such exploration.

The batch of wines that arrived this week are pretty plain vanilla - nothing exotic at all - because before ordering wine online, particularly in quantity, I want to know what I'm getting into.  Rarely is the sight-unseen deal good enough to outweigh the risks of taking possession of a bunch of bottles you won't enjoy (which is what better than half of my purchases have been from Garagiste.)

So, to avoid that risk, I made a list of the screaming bargains available, them ran out and bought the few bottles I hadn't had.  Good thing, too. 

The 2013 Bodegas Atalaya "Laya" red from Almansa (Spain) was being offered for a paltry $6.33.  Dense and inky, it tasted cheap, grapey, and like it might have come out of a make-your-own-wine kit.  Parker gave the 2012 of this wine 90 points, reminding once again how important it is to make your own mind up about a wine.

Better luck was to be had with the other two: the 2012 Columbia Crest Merlot $8 and the 2013 McManis Cabernet Sauvignon $8.  Though the McManis has sufficient residual acidity to make it borderline hangover juice, perhaps a year in the bottle will help it shed its adolescence.  The Merlot, though, is as consistent and bulletproof a wine as you could ask for. 

The balance of the wines have either been reviewed here before or can be collectively blessed by simply applying the label "easy drinking". Considering that the average price per bottle here is a hair over $8.50, what else could you ask for?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Free Shipping Deal Alert!

Marketview Liquor, one of my favorite online wine retailers, is running an unbelievable special.  Free shipping on all wine and  no minimum order required and all other discounts still apply.

Free Shipping on All Wine Orders

How much could this save you?  A LOT.

If you're not in New York state, consider that you don't pay tax, either.  Check out these savings at two different price levels:

Inexpensive wine (2012 Columbia Crest Merlot)
Typical retail price: $10.99
With typical sales tax: $11.81
Marketview Liquor price: $7.99
Savings per bottle: $3.82 (or 32%)
Savings per case: $45.84

Moderate wine (2012 Andrew Murray Vineyards Watch Hill Syrah)
Typical retail price: $39.99
With typical sales tax: $42.99
Marketview Liquor price: $20.99
Savings per bottle: $22.00 (or 51%)
Savings per case: $263.88
Higher priced wine (2012 Faust Cabernet Napa Valley)
Typical retail price: $49.99
With typical sales tax: $53.74
Marketview Liquor price: $38.99
Savings per bottle: $14.75 (or 27%)
Savings per case: $177.00

Obviously, the free shipping, no tax, and bargain prices all combine to make for serious savings depending on what specific wines you're shopping for.  Happy hunting!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Recycle Bin, Week of Feb. 23

With much of the eastern part of the country in the grips of an unrelenting winter, thoughts of enjoying a refreshing white wine on the deck are almost too distant to grasp.  And so we attempt to comfort ourselves with thick sweaters, dreams of tropics climes, and rich red wines to soothe numb toes.  That's the theme of this week's recycle bin: warming reds that will leave a few extra bucks in your pocket to go towards the vacation fund.

2012 Ca' Momi 'Rosso di Napa' Napa Valley $10
A kitchen sink blend of cab, zin, merlot, and petite sirah.  It's got enough acidity to tip the hat towards the mother country while still packing enough heft to let you know it's from California.  Easy drinking.  Remarkable price - I thought the only thing you could get in Napa for $10 was a jaywalking ticket.

2012 Guenoc Victorian Claret North Coast $10
Rich, dense, and generously oaked, this meaty beast has almost too much brawn, but give it some air to settle down and a heavy beef dish to cozy up to, and you'll be rosy-cheeked and happy before long.

2010 Wellington Merlot Sonoma County $15
As compelling a nose as any Merlot can deliver.  Mid palate is lithe, with a fresh cross stitch of both aquamarine and borderline black fruit. The marathon finish crooks its finger, beckoning you back for another lingering taste. A lot of experience for the buck. Tough to believe this virile wine is over four years old.

2011 Olivier Hillaire Vin de France $10
Wow. Better known for his CDP, Olivier Hilaire is a part time baker, part time winemaker in the Southern Rhone. A general Vin de France blend of Grenache, Carignane, and Syrah, it's  priced at bargain $10 and delivers a surprising amount of depth and rusticity at the price point. Focused, and with nice balance of both fruit and place, I will likely go out and find more of this as soon as possible.
Rosso di Napa

Monday, February 23, 2015

Buying By The Numbers: 2012 and 2013 In California

This is far from a scientific exploration or in-depth analysis, rather casual observation as wines from the 2012 and 2013 vintages have begun to flood retail shelves. With that as a disclaimer, a quick look at how consumers can use vintages to help guide smart purchasing of California wines follows.

For purposes of contrast, it is helpful to start with 2011 as a benchmark since it will stand out in contrast as a particularly lackluster vintage in California. And what I really mean by lackluster is undesirable. Plagued by cold weather in late season rains, anyone who didn't pick early (which means almost everyone) found themselves either picking during rains or shortly after. Either way, precipitation preceding or during harvest has a universally detrimental impact on the quality of wines. That said, you're still likely to find plenty of 2011 wines (especially at higher price points) from California on retail shelves as wholesalers and retailers struggle to liquidate them. My advice: Let someone else do that for them.

By contrast, 2012 is widely characterized as a classic vintage - and not just because there was only one direction to head in from 2011. Cabernets, Chardonnays, and, in particular, Pinot Noir have all registered high acclaim. While I have not had enough exposure to Cabernets from 2012 to make an adequate comparison, I think this vintage is being celebrated as much as it is because we haven't seen this caliber of Cabernet-friendly conditions since 2009. The same goes for Pinot Noir. All in all, my advice is simple: if it's 2012, you are not at risk of getting an off year lesser quality bottle.

As for 2013, we are seeing mostly whites on the shelves now, with a few Pinot Noirs. Though 2013 yielded an early bumper crop in California, I believe it coincides with a deliberate dilution/reduction in quality for many popular and widely available wines. This is most prominently experienced in the $10-$20 range for Chardonnays that were very drinkable in 2012 and are of a noticeably lesser quality in 2013.  Most of the popular 2013 Chardonnays I've had appear to exhibit more extraction, more residual sugar, and generally a lot of clumsiness. These are all signs of manipulation in the cellar, which can typically be traced back to less expensive grape sources.

So, if you want to know where large wine companies' profits are coming from these days, they are putting lower quality wine under the same labels and at the same prices. My advice here is to scoop up 2012 Chardonnays in particular and enjoy those over the course of the next year.  Same goes for Pinot Noir. A bright spot is in affordable Sauvignon Blanc where some producers have returned to the classic California style of bright, grassy, green apple influence that makes those wines so lipsmacking and refreshing.

Again, far from scientific, but these rules of thumb should improve your chances of getting better bottles.  Cheers!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Three Tier Tantrums

People love to trash-talk the three-tier system (3TS) that controls alcohol sales in the US.  It's a recurring theme in wine writing circles with pretty much everyone saying the same thing ("Death to the 3TS!") And why not?  It's a ripe target with plenty to criticize.

The post-Prohibition laws that preserve distributors' margins and prop up an inefficient industry mandate this: retailers can only buy from in-state wholesalers and consumers can only buy from retailers.  In a time of overnight delivery and one-click purchasing, the model seems quaint and laughable.  Critics of the system complain that the three tier structure is too confining, limiting consumer choice and access to markets for smaller producers.  And these are the least of the complaints.

But as valid as those claims are, maybe there's a reason (besides consistent campaign donations to pretty much every state legislator in the country) why the 3TS survives.  Maybe, just maybe it's more efficient than we want to give it credit for.

This is a tough subject to write about because to really understand it, you've got to walk down some long corridors lined with economic theory.  And who the hell (besides me) likes reading about applied economics?  So, in an effort to make the logic more digestible, two graphics embedded below take a swing at explaining the impact of deregulation on the things we care about most: pricing and product selection.

It's tempting to pluck the low hanging fruit of economic theory.  If you subscribe to this approach, you probably follow these bread crumbs: Deregulation reduces barriers to entry, and invites competition and innovation.  Competition and innovation drive prices down.  The lower the barriers to entry, the broader the product selection.  And you'd probably stop there because that picture looks awfully appealing. the real world isn't quite so tidy. In the first flowchart (click for a larger version), take a look at the impact deregulation would have on prices. In the top left corner, we start with two high-level consequences of deregulation: more competition in the distribution tier and new ways of delivering products to consumers. Under the second branch, there's another triage point: bypassing the distributor versus bypassing both distributor and retailer. Just follow the arrows and you'll get the picture.

The second flow chart is organized the same way, but seeks to answer whether deregulation would result in better product selection.
 In both cases, the predicted outcomes seem to contradict the trail of bread crumbs described above. What's more is that they support the idea that the 3TS is already incorporating efficiencies of scale. Take it one step further and one could argue that the margins afforded the three tier supply chain actually support broader product selection than a low margin environment would.

 Is there still room for improvement and innovation? Of course. And fat margins inhibit any corporation's incentive to innovate. But things are not quite as dire as the vocal minority would have you believe. As with most inequities, what's probably most appropriate isn't a radical abandonment of 3TS for the sake of consumer-friendliness, but a calibration of what's already working.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Recycle Bin, Week of Jan. 26

Sorry it's been a while, but 2015 is off to a busy start.  In the works is a piece on restaurant wine pricing, which requires interviewing actual people, getting quotes approved, and composing something that sort of approximates the product of journalism. Besides working up a good thirst, this process certainly makes one appreciate people who write for a living!  Anyway, here are a handful of don'ts and do's.  Cheers!

2012 Fattoria del Cerro Rosso di Montalcino $15
Thinking that a few dollars more would buy that much more of an experience, this came home with a tag touting 91 points from some magazine or another.  Turns out the Chianti Senesi from the same producer at $11.99 was the better price to quality ratio. By a good stretch, too.

2013 Kendall Jackson Chardonnay $13
For decades (quite literally), this wine typified, if not defined, California Chardonnay. Often the butt of aficionados' jokes for its ubiquity, KJ Chard was also an incredibly reliable wine for sheer enjoyability. There aren't too many wines you can say that about and also find at pharmacies and gas stations. It's been years since I had checked in on this, so lacking any inspiration from other selections on the Chardonnay shelf recently, I grabbed for it. Whether it's a reflection of my own changing palate, or, more likely, gravitation toward a more popular (read: sweet) preference, what's in this bottle couldn't hold a candle to what was in it 10 years ago. Clumsy, cloying, and cheaply made, Jess Jackson is rolling in his grave. What a shame.

NC Shebang Eighth Cuvee California $13
Made by Morgan Peterson, son of Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson, is this entry level kitchen sink blend.  Though Morgan has become known for his Bedrock Zinfandels, this is a heck of a bottle for the money.  But, and this is a big but, it needs time and air.  On day one it was large, clumsy, and flabby.  Day two saw some improvement, but it wasn't until day four (!) that it really delivered.  Structured, powerful, and true to its name, it channels Ridge Geyserville from many years ago.

2013 Luzon Blanco Jumilla $12
Vibrating with energy and crackling with lip-smacking tartness, this unsual Spanish white from a region better known for its over-extracted reds is a terrific surprise.

2012 Matane Primitivo Puglia $12
If they made Zin in Italy, this is what it would taste like.  Wait, what?  Primitive is Zin?  Well, that explains it!  Terrific Tuesday night wine that'll be coming home again.

2013 Edna Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir Central Coast $13
A pleasant, if boozy, fruit-driven Pinot that over delivers for the price. What it lacks in complexity it makes up for in enthusiasm.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Columbia Winery Current Releases

The Columbia winery - not to be confused with Columbia Crest - has a long, storied history in Washington state. By pure coincidence, it was the first Washington winery I set foot in back in the mid 90s. Today, by virtue of what appears to be a newly-struck marketing agreement, the rebranded Columbia Winery bottlings should be found and widely available nationally. It's also nice to see that they've come into the broader market with an aggressive pricing structure. Though the prices listed below are suggested retail, I suspect that in most places you will find them for a few dollars less. That puts them in real competition with the other major Washington wineries. I think they will compete just fine.
2013 Chardonnay Columbia Valley $15
Generous and spacious, though not cloying or overly residual from weight. Pleasant, if two dimensional, but a value at the price.

2012 Cabernet Columbia Valley $16
A penetrating nose is followed by big, deep fruit with light framework. Flavors are blue-black with gentle acidity. Plump and relaxed. 

2013 Merlot Columbia Valley $17
Did they get the Merlot bottles confused with the Cabernet bottles? Far more similar to what you're likely accustomed to from Cabernet then Merlot. Taut, more structured, and possessing some nice high toned notes on the finish. Data point number 103 as to how Columbia Valley will be the epicenter of Merlot's much-deserved redemption.

NV Red Blend Columbia Valley 'Composition' $17
Without a doubt my favorite of the four. Interesting that it is a non-vintage, but I'm not going to hold that against it one bit. Terrific structure, good grip, and mouth coating, powdery tannins all stitched together in a bespoke fashion for terrific results. I will be seeking this out again in the near future.  Bravo.